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

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.

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.

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.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Jo Marsicano on 10/07/2010 - 11:10 am.

    I think it’s important to remember that breast cancer is a huge industry in this country. Breast cancer “awareness,” to me, simply keeps the promotion going so that we’ll support expensive diagnostics and surgeries, like mammograms and preventive double mastectomies, which remove breasts that aren’t even cancerous (!!).

    I’d like to see some coverage about the fact that the vast majority of mammograms come up **negative** — that most women don’t get breast cancer.

    As a woman, I’m turned off by the fact that we women have our overall health to be concerned about, not just health issues that are gender-specific.

    The breast cancer scam has us all thinking that breast cancer isn’t anything we can do anything about — that it’s “genetic,” that we have to find a “cure,” that we have to subject ourselves to the pessimistic pronouncements of medical “experts” and that we’re supposed to feel all warm inside when we see corporations supporting breast cancer research.

    I feel embarrassed by all the pop-culture bandwagon that hypes breast cancer via the pink ribbon, the mother’s day run, the “breast cancer awareness” month — while ignoring larger health threats like the fumes from the downtown Minneapolis garbage incinerator, radiation from the nuclear power plants in Red Wing and Monticello (which directly cause cancer, according to state and federal health agencies), and the stream runoff and air pollution caused by large corporate hog farms in Southern Minnesota.

    I would like to see us become intellectual, political, and economic adults on this issue.

    Thanks MinnPost for your work.

  2. Submitted by Leslie Martin on 10/07/2010 - 12:16 pm.

    I, too, am embarrassed by the Pink-a-Thon. However, as a two-time survivor, I encourage women to get mammograms. If I hadn’t had one at age 42, I’d have died within a year or two, leaving behind a very young child.

    Thank heaven for those costly diagnostics and highly trained and caring physicians who saved my life.

    What bothers me about The Pink is that, while breast cancer captures the imagination and the dollars, a comparably small amount of research is being funded for other diseases, such as ovarian cancer, which is almost always fatal because its symptoms are silent.

    Of course it’s wonderful that so many people are aware of breast cancer and that the vast majority of people with breast cancer now survive. No argument.

    Let’s continue the awareness, funding and services, but tone down the commercialization of pink and take a look at other killer diseases in an equally effective but less commercial way.

    (By the way, contrary to what the previous writer claims, rarely do people involved in the awareness movement suggest that breast cancer is commonly genetic. Few cases are genetic. One of my best friends does fall into that category, however, with many relatives, female and male, including my friend, eventually getting the disease.)

  3. Submitted by Leslie Gibson on 10/07/2010 - 12:31 pm.

    If you want to make a more direct, immediate contribution to a breast cancer patient, consider supporting smaller organizations like Hope Chest for Breast Cancer.

    Hope Chest helps by providing emergency funds for rent, utilities and transportation to under-served women who are unable to work due to the side effects of breast cancer treatment.

    They deliver meals for under-served women and their families during breast cancer treatment, and they also sponsor early detection education and screening for under-served women with a focus on diverse populations.


  4. Submitted by Brie Cadman on 10/07/2010 - 02:30 pm.

    Great article. I think the pinkwashing is out of control, but there is a difference between purchasing a pair of socks with a pink ribbon on them and drinking a pink cocktail. The latter is a risk factor for the exact disease they’re claiming to fight!
    I don’t think the alcohol companies are going to pull pink products, but I have posted a petition asking them to have transparency in their marketing and to clearly state that alcohol is a risk factor for breast cancer. Sign it if you are so inclined.

  5. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/08/2010 - 10:15 am.

    I’m sick of the whole pink campaign. It’s been over-commercialized, over-promoted and over-publicized, and now is nothing more than a marketing gimmick. I was sick of it before I found out I had breast cancer, and even more so after I was cured.

    The amount of fear associated with a suspicious mammogram or even a breast cancer diagnosis is excessive. One step at a time, ladies! Most suspicious mammograms turn out to be false alarms.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in getting a mammogram at least every other year. I worry most about my friends who’ve never had one or who’ve gone many years without having one. Early diagnosis is absolutely crucial.

    In my case, I was lucky. They found a very tiny amount of cancer, it was surgically removed and healed painlessly, and other than taking Arimidex for five years, no further treatment was required. If the cancer is discovered too late or is the fast-spreading kind, you’re going to have a battle on your hands, no question about it. But in cases like mine, it’s really no big deal.

    Just a side note: About 12 years before the breast cancer, I was diagnosed with tonsil cancer and I spend 6 months in hell and 6 months recovering, and I still have after-effects. And you never hear anything about tonsil cancer.

  6. Submitted by Amy Bolin on 10/15/2010 - 03:30 pm.

    It has also been recently brought to our attention that certain research and educational organizations that are specifically identifying themselves with the breast cancer cause have been known to contribute a portion of their donations to other (some would argue unrelated) nonprofit organizations.

    Just this week, I found out that the Susan G Komen foundation donates a portion of their donations to Planned Parenthood. This article alone encourages people to “investigate how much of your purchase is going to anything even remotely related to breast cancer”

    This just goes to show that it’s not only the companies jumping on the pink-bandwagon that are at fault. ALL players/organizations involved should audit themselves and make sure they have those affected by breast cancer at heart.

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