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Seeing so much pink this October is making some breast-cancer survivors see red

Some companies position themselves as leaders in the fight to eradicate breast cancer while continuing to sell products that may actually promote breast cancer.

It’s October — Breast Cancer Awareness Month — and once again we’re awash in pink. Buy a product and you, too, can feel good about “doing something” about the disease. After all, the company will donate a portion of your purchase to “breast cancer”! And there are so many items to choose from! Things like pink Sharpies! (“Ink it for pink” — thanks Miley Cyrus!) Pink-striped sateen sheets! Hey, even pink vodka!

Yes, that’s right. The makers of two brands of vodka, Pinky Vodka and Support Her Vodka, are on the breast-cancer awareness bandwagon this year, along with a bunch of other alcohol companies (“cocktails for a cure”!).

Of course, those companies don’t mention in their breast-cancer awareness campaigns that alcohol consumption is a risk factor for the disease. But, then, KFC didn’t bring up the association between high-fat foods and breast cancer when it sold its fried chicken in pretty pink buckets earlier this year. And Estee Lauder and Avon, two cosmetic companies that have tied themselves to pink-ribbon campaigns, don’t talk about how the ingredients in some of their products have been identified as suspected carcinogens.

This “pinkwashing” — positioning a company as a leader in the fight to eradicate breast cancer while it continues to sell products that may actually promote breast cancer — has many breast-cancer survivors, well, seeing red.

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One of those women is Christine Norton, president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Breast Cancer Coalition. “To me, a lot of [the pink ribbon campaigns] are as offensive as political ads,” she told me in a phone interview Wednesday. “People think it’s just innocuous. Who could not be in favor of people donating money?”

But, she added, “What of substance has been done? So, maybe two cents of a dollar has gone to something that might not even be good research. And you feel all good about yourself?”

Much of the money that companies raise during Breast Cancer Awareness Month is not spent in a transparent way, added Norton.  “I urge people to really investigate how much of your purchase is going to anything even remotely related to breast cancer, and how much of that money is being well spent,” she said.

The pink-ribbon campaigns also make women “over-aware and over-afraid, and that can lead to over-diagnosis,” she said. Indeed, much of the emphasis of Breast Cancer Awareness Month is on the promotion of mammography screening, which research has found can lead to a significant amount of unnecessary treatment.

The whole tone of October’s “awareness” message irritates many breast-cancer survivors. “Friends of mine who are metastatic find this to be a very painful month,” said Norton. “Breast cancer is not pretty. It’s not pink. Everything is not just fine and dandy if you’re aware of breast cancer.”

Ending breast cancer
The National Breast Cancer Coalition made a bold announcement this month. They’ve set a deadline to end breast cancer: Jan. 1, 2020. “We’re not necessarily asking for more money,” said Norton. “We’re asking that the existing money be more focused on working toward something that will end breast cancer.”

As Fran Visco, NBCC’s national president, wrote recently: “When will we get serious about ending breast cancer? How about now? … It is time for a new approach and a refocus on our goal: not the goal of a new drug or a new way to find cancer. That is just not good enough. The goal needs to be the end of breast cancer. At the current rate of progress it could be 500 years before that happens. And that makes me very angry.”

“This is the 25th breast-cancer awareness month,” Visco added. “We are being asked to celebrate that fact — which is symptomatic of the problem. Why do we try so hard to make breast cancer palatable, comfortable, pink? I really don’t feel like celebrating.”

Breast Cancer Awareness Month, as currently focused, is distracting — and unnecessary, said Norton. “If there are people who are not aware of breast cancer after 25 years of being bombarded with the message, then they’re just ignoring the message,” she said.

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Twin Cities Breast Cancer Awareness Conference
The Breast Cancer Awareness Association (whose president, Ann Harris, has also expressed her frustration with the pinkwashing of October) is sponsoring the Twin Cities Breast Cancer Awareness Conference on Saturday (Oct. 9), from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., at the Minneapolis Convention Center. But it’s more than just an “awareness” event. It includes workshops on a wide range of topics of interest to breast-cancer survivors and their families, including “Women and Money,” “Health Coaching and Cancer,” “Innovations in Plastic Surgery,” and “Nutritional Needs of Women.” For information about the event’s speakers, workshops and more, go to bcaamn.org.