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In honour of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, ITB sat down for a Q+A with Stephanie Seban and Amanda Anik of e-commerce brand Thrive Gang, and breast cancer charity Rethink Breast Cancer, to discuss the impact of social media on young cancer patients and cancer charities, and the role it has to play in driving awareness about the disease.
Stephanie and Amanda are best friends of more than 20 years. After Stephanie was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer at just 31, she and Amanda joined forces to launch Thrive Gang – a brand aimed at driving positive change for young women in the breast cancer community. Stephanie was initially given grim survival statistics of only 5 years life expectancy but is still thriving over 8 years later. Cancer doesn’t always mean it’s the end of the road and there is hope for all those who suffer the disease no matter what stage of the cancer journey they are at. Amanda has been by her side every step of the way and knows what it’s like to be a ‘Co-Thriver’ experiencing herself the many ups and downs of the journey.
Rethink Breast Cancer also believes in creating a positive outlook for cancer patients and educating people around the disease – specifically breast cancer in young women. Both Rethink Breast Cancer and Thrive Gang are inspiring examples of businesses disrupting breast cancer awareness on social media especially amongst young women. Read below to find out all the latest on the subject!
Can you give us a bit of background about yourselves and what inspired you to start each of your businesses?
Thrive Gang: As a young adult living with cancer, Stephanie learned pretty quickly that there aren’t many resources available that provide community, support, inspiration and knowledge for young women battling with the disease – we call them thrivers. Stephanie, a teacher prior to her diagnosis, had a passion for writing and so this prompted her to start her blog. She realized soon after that she couldn’t execute it successfully without Amanda’s marketing and design background and so brought her on board. Stephanie’s story and blog started to get recognition and as a result, she has become a well-known advocate in the breast cancer community giving talks around the US and Canada to spread her inspiring tale of hope and positivity no matter how far down the cancer journey you are.
We came to realize that we weren’t the stereotypical ‘pink ribbon’ women and a cancer diagnosis was not going to force us into changing our preferences and style. What was missing for thrivers was more modern attire and gifts in this whole crazy world of cancer. Thus, Thrive Gang was created out of the frustration of not finding gifts that resonated with and looked like us. We wanted to create meaningful and stylish gifts that complimented one’s style and wardrobe without overpowering it. Our simple idea for Thrive Gang is to make inspirational and empowering gifts for Thrivers or anyone going through adversity – such as a cancer journey – like ourselves.
Rethink Breast Cancer: At the age of 22, after losing her mother to breast cancer, Rethink’s founder and Executive Director – MJ DeCoteau – was hard-pressed to find relevant information about the risk of breast cancer that wasn’t scary and overwhelming. Determined but frustrated, she quickly began to understand why so many smart, young people were in the dark about breast cancer. Like her, they simply weren’t being targeted and it was this realization that became DeCoteau’s call to action. By 2001, she had brought together a dream team of Canada’s most innovative, energetic and creative minds to start Rethink Breast Cancer, putting young people concerned about and affected by the disease on the map for the very first time.
What does Thrive Gang aim to achieve? Were you unable to find this elsewhere before it started?
Thrive Gang: We know how hard it can be to find something for a loved one who’s going through the most difficult time of their life (a cancer diagnosis in our case). You want to show support and convey the message that you’ll never leave their side, and we want to help you get that message across. So, we came up with unique and meaningful gifts to encourage those on their journey. Gifts that are inspirational, practical, and items that actually can be incorporated into one’s existing wardrobe. Prior to creating our designs, we really didn’t resonate with the items on the market that are sold particularly for breast cancer. Amanda really couldn’t find anything that Stephanie would actually wear or put to good use, so we figured, “let’s just make our own.”
In addition to filling the need for “cooler” gifts and merchandise for the cancer community, another huge priority for us was that we wanted to create a community and a safe place to help cancer patients feel like less of an anomaly. Stephanie once felt like she was the only woman who had breast cancer so young, let alone a woman with a stage 4 diagnosis. Through her blogging and advocacy work however, she learned that there were unfortunately many other young women in her shoes. There are so many specific and unique challenges that young thrivers face that aren’t addressed or acknowledged. These include issues around fertility, dating, early menopause and career prospects to name but a few of the challenges faced by this group of women. This is why it was more important than ever for us to create a platform for others so they don’t feel alone. We aim to share inspiring stories, provide valuable and relatable information whilst maintaining a youthful and upbeat vibe that translates in our brand image. Prior to creating our growing community, we couldn’t really find this type of support elsewhere.
How integral has social media been to both your businesses and their objectives?
Thrive Gang: Social media is the backbone of our communications and marketing strategy. As a startup, it has allowed us to create an engaged and invested community of thrivers who believe in our brand and support us in a way we would never have been able to afford through traditional paid advertising. In short, it’s extremely cost-effective for lead generation and brand awareness.
Also, the ability to share stories and information through our own platforms helps us maintain our brand voice and gives us full control of our messaging.
The most important discovery we made from our marketing and communications strategy is that social media is most valuable for starting a conversation and building relationships. Giving our audience good content serves the community and our business goals simultaneously.
Rethink Breast Cancer: In the past two years, social media has been a crucial vehicle for us to communicate about our campaigns and the storytelling on our blog. We have seen tremendous growth over this time with Facebook and Instagram particularly. For example, we just launched an MBC (Metastatic Breast Cancer) Allies campaign where we are asking for 10,000 allies to take our pledge to stand together to help women with MBC live better and live longer.
Sparking conversations through social media is helping to get our campaign out there in a big way while also challenging perceptions and opening dialogue around issues that don’t get enough attention.
Social media has also helped women with breast cancer find us and sign up to be part of our community. For example, when we promote our Rethink Young Women’s Network (RYWN), we receive several sign-up requests afterwards.
In short, social media has connected us to thousands of young women affected by breast cancer from all over the world who are looking for community, connection and content that’s relevant to them.
In what way do you think social media best serves cancer patients and in what way does it make the biggest impact on their lives?
Thrive Gang: Social media allows cancer thrivers to meet and interact with others who may have the same diagnosis, treatment protocols, healing practices and demographics. Being unable to find others who you can relate to is detrimental to one’s mental well-being and overall healing.
Social media allows those who are newly diagnosed or “longtime thriving” access to information and the ability to create a community and bond with others. Whether it’s through Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, social media platforms enable people to share their story and experiences as openly as they would like. The information, advice and testimony from others who openly share their experiences are priceless since it is so personable – something which you don’t get from visiting a medical or non-profit website!
Rethink Breast Cancer: Social media is designed to give open access and connect people, and we have seen this first-hand in the breast cancer community. Thanks to social media, not only are women meeting other women like themselves, but they are also finding us, talking to us and supporting us on things that they relate to and connect with.
In terms of impact, it gives patients a larger platform to speak freely about their unique experiences and hopefully educate others in the process.
How effective do you think social media has been for creating awareness around breast cancer prevention and raising money for breast cancer charities?
Thrive Gang: Breast cancer is complicated and has many layers, which many people are unaware of unless they have experienced breast cancer first-hand. There is prevention, there are ‘pre-vivors,’ early stagers, survivors who have completed treatment, and then those like Stephanie who are living with a late stage diagnosis. We don’t believe in labelling people per se, but we use these terms as the best way to explain the patient journey in order to help people better understand it.
Social media has been a tremendous tool for getting messages like prevention care across and at the same time highlighting the underwhelming and disheartening amount of support for those with stage 4 metastatic disease. Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer is the only diagnosis that results in death and yet it only receives an estimated 2 – 5% of funding annually for research. We think this is unacceptable and aim to change this. If money went to support and prolong the lives of women with late-stage breast cancer, and ultimately research, there wouldn’t be a need to fund prevention.
But social media is an extraordinary tool to get messages across and also for charities to advertise events and fundraisers – absolutely.
Rethink Breast Cancer: For us, it definitely helps educate people on our organization’s mission and also inform people what’s currently happening in our pillars which include advocacy, events, digital content and campaigns. For example, we’ve just launched our Breast Cancer Awareness Month campaign and partnerships and we are using social media as an educational tool whilst also encouraging a donation. Also, it has enabled our Allies campaign (mentioned above) to have a real impact.
How could brands be doing more for breast cancer charities and patients?
Thrive Gang: To continue what I have mentioned above, brands should consider raising and donating money since this has the biggest impact and produces real results. Funding to charities and organizations who put all dollars towards research to find a cure and prolong the lives of those with metastatic disease is what we passionately feel is not getting enough attention and is valuable.
Rethink Breast Cancer: We believe it is important for brands to align with charities that have an authentic connection to their own mission. Collaborating in this way and finding this type of authentic partnership we believe can be more effective than just a straightforward donation.
What facts about cancer surprise people the most, that you feel not enough are educated about?
Thrive Gang: One of the biggest misconceptions is that cancer is a “one-size-fits-all disease” and looks the same on everyone. The most common misperception is that people with cancer are all bald, and perhaps sickly looking. While this may be true for a lot of cancer patients, it is not true for all. Often times, those with metastatic breast cancer are on treatments that don’t cause hair loss so people presume they are healthy and ‘normal’.
For Stephanie, having hair and not looking like someone who has cancer has been an obstacle when it comes to doing her part in the cancer community. She doesn’t look like she has cancer (which she is grateful for) but people don’t understand her diagnosis because she appears to look “normal”. Because of this, it’s been even harder for her to get her story heard so she can do her part to make a difference for the community.
People often assume cancer = death. But while many sadly suffer from this terrible disease, there is also a lot of hope and cancer doesn’t always mean it’s the end of the road. There are so many different paths to healing and there is always hope for anyone, no matter what cancer, or what stage.
Just as no two people are the same, no two cancers are the same. We believe anything is possible and we try to convey that through our branding and messaging. Every ‘Thrive Gang’ purchase comes with a handwritten note of encouragement. We want people to feel hopeful, loved and supported – this is ultimately healing.
Rethink Breast Cancer: When young women get breast cancer it may be more aggressive and this can lead to tougher treatments. On top of this, adding age-specific issues such as fertility, diagnosis during pregnancy, childcare, career hiatuses and financial security, it becomes clear that young women with breast cancer have a lot on their plate. They also face isolation as they are often the youngest people in the waiting room and fielding statements such as, “But you’re too young to get cancer.” Because of this, Rethink has built a community of young women with breast cancer (Rethink Young Women’s Network or RYWN) consisting of over 1,000 women (and growing) to support them.