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Why some breast-cancer survivors are sick of pink

It’s October, the month when pink predominates. For October is, of course, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and its symbol, the pink ribbon, has become, well, ubiquitous.

It’s October, the month when pink predominates. For October is, of course, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and its symbol, the pink ribbon, has become, well, ubiquitous. It’s everywhere — or, at least, everywhere anything is sold.

You can buy pink-ribbon running shoes, hammers, perfume, soap, candy, thongs, boots, breakfast cereal, soup cans, and so much more — even personal pepper spray and hunting rifles! (For the “15 Strangest Breast Cancer Awareness Products,” check out this list on’s website.)

You’ll be seeing a lot of pink ribbons at tonight’s Vikings-Packers game. Several players, including Brett Favre (whose wife, Deanna, is a breast-cancer survivor) have announced that they’ll be wearing pink cleats, pink armbands and/or pink gloves.

And the goal posts will be padded in pink.

Yet, although breast-cancer survivors and advocates are appreciative of the awareness and money that has been raised by such products for this disease that tragically takes the lives of more than 40,000 American women each year, there’s been a growing backlash against what’s become known in the corporate world as “cause-related marketing.”

“More and more women each year are becoming annoyed if not angry about the increasing use of breast cancer for profit by companies,” says Christine Norton, co-founder of the Minnesota Breast Cancer Coalition and a breast-cancer survivor.

And some breast-cancer survivors would prefer not to encounter constant pink reminders throughout October of their disease. “It becomes overwhelming, actually, to see so much pink,” says Norton.

There’s also the problem, says Norton, that so much of the focus of Breast Cancer Awareness Month is on mammogram screening. “It isn’t mammograms that save people’s lives,” she says, “it’s the treatment afterward. I wish there was more focus on treatment.”

Norton also wishes for more public discussion this month (and throughout the year) on how lack of health insurance is affecting the quality of treatment for women with breast cancer. Not all women have access to the best treatments, she says.

A double-edge sword?
The Boston Globe ran a great article Sunday that explores this issue of cause-related marketing — particularly its connection with breast cancer. (Hat tip: Schwitzer Health News Blog)

“The technique [cause marketing] has been a tremendously powerful way of generating money for breast cancer research and education by redirecting consumer dollars,” writes reporter Kris Frieswick. “It is also a powerful technique for raising profits.”

A recent study, Frieswick reports, found that “not only can companies raise prices and make higher profits on the sale of products that benefit a cause, these companies’ entire brand portfolios can experience a ‘spillover’ increase in sales and profits, which more than compensates for the money given to charity.”

The study’s conclusion: ”Our results suggest that actions of [cause marketing] firms should be looked on with some skepticism by consumers and government officials — while the firms may be helping with charitable causes, they are also using [cause marketing] to increase their own prices and profits.”

Breast-ancer advocates have also expressed concern that some companies are flouting their pink-ribbon campaigns while continuing to make products with ingredients suspected of causing cancer (like the bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, that’s given to cows and then finds its way into dairy products).

Then there’s the problem, notes Frieswick, “that so-called consumption philanthropy may actually be dampening people’s willingness to make direct cash donations to charities. … [Consumers may not] donate directly because they feel they did their part by buying those pink candies and golf clubs.”

Think before you pink
So if you want to donate to breast cancer this month, find an organization you like and write out your check directly to it. That’s the advice given by most advocates for any cause.

And if you still want to buy pink-ribbon products, ask questions first. Breast Cancer Action, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, has created a “Think Before You Pink” campaign to educate consumers on which questions to ask. Such questions include, “How much money from your purchase actually goes toward breast cancer? What is the maximum amount that will be donated?” “What is the company doing to ensure that its products are not actually contributing to the breast-cancer epidemic?”

Frieswick concludes her article with a quote from Jeanne Sather, a Seattle woman who’s been waging her own campaign against the pink ribbon. “I get e-mails all the time from women with breast cancer saying, ‘Help me survive October. Help me get through October,'” says Sather. “It feels like a party and we are not celebrating.”

Do any MinnPost readers feel the same?