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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Smells like Pink Spirit

So it's October which means it's ...

*Hispanic Heritage Month [this should be "Latino" but it's the U.S. govt. coming up with the term and they say "Hispanic," oh well]
*Domestic Violence/Sexual Violence Awareness Month
and of course
*Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Now here's the thing: I think by now we are all aware of breast cancer. What I mean by this is that we don't need a little pink ribbon to tell us to remember that breast cancer is an awful disease and that we should be devoting resources to breast cancer research--to find better therapies/treatments, as well as tests and other measurements to make this disease eradicated or at least to the point of remission where a diagnosis is not considered a death sentence.

And actually, a breast cancer diagnosis is really not a death sentence any longer precisely because breast cancer activists, mostly women in the 1970s who had, themselves, been diagnosed with the disease and who wanted better treatment options and a more public awareness of the disease really fought for themselves and for other women (this is back in the day when you whispered words like "breast" and "cancer" and the combination of the two would probably be registered less as a whisper and more as a mouthed soundless utterance). Among the gains that activists (including male allies) won was the end to radical mastectomies, having women have the ability to choose their treatment options instead of doctors (primarily male doctors) make those decisions for them, and doing diagnostic lumpectomies rather than automatic mastectomies. The pink ribbon attached to breast cancer education, "awareness" if you will, developed hand in hand with corporate America when Estee Lauder distributed 1.5 million ribbons along with a card explaining how to do a breast self-examination in 1992.

So what's my beef with the pink ribbon?

This is actually a question I got during the talk I gave yesterday as part of the Carolina Women Center's speaker series. Well, it was phrased differently. A student asked what I meant by "pink ribbon culture" and why I had a problem with it.

[Aside: When I woke up yesterday I realized that I was feeling a bit apprehensive about giving a talk on breast cancer. Luckily I was able to process my feelings of discomfort with my good pal J.C., who helped me to see that part of my unease has to do with the lack of critical distance I have on this subject--I mean, I am a woman who is currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer, who is about to have a bi-lateral mastectomy, and so talking about all of this IN THE MOMENT when I'm in a stage of vulnerability is naturally going to seem overwhelming. However, I have to say that I'm glad that I did the talk. I was surprised that so many students came--there were about 40 people, and over 3/4 were students--with a mix of friends/colleagues in the room as well. All in all I found it cathartic to talk about my experiences and especially why I reject the pink ribbon culture]

My problem with the pink ribbon--and why this blog is called "No Fucking Pink Ribbon" is that, to me, the pink ribbon masks and hides a lot of things, AND it seems a particularly infantalizing color and symbol, especially in terms of the overly feminine/feminized merchandising that is associated with it. I mean, the month of October has so many things "pinkified" (like NFL jerseys) or things that have a pink ribbon slapped on it. Every major magazine, especially women's magazines like "O" and "In Style" have advertisements this month touting every kind of woman's product that you can imagine, decked out with a pink ribbon and an assurance that a certain percentage of the sale of this item (cosmetics, jewelry, shoes, clothing, purses, kitchen appliances, you name it) will be donated for breast cancer research.

[Aside #2: Here are two articles that also talk about being tired of pink ribbon culture--one from a year ago in The Boston Globe and another, more recently, from The New York Times]

Now don't get me wrong--I appreciate breast cancer research. But what I think we need to do is to stop thinking in terms of research (as in finding a "cure") and start thinking in terms of prevention (if you don't get breast cancer in the first place then you won't need a cure). And prevention requires activism. Specifically, political action. I think we are about as aware of breast cancer as we are going to be. Everyone knows someone who has breast cancer. But what we need to do is to be active against breast cancer. Heck, we need to be active against all cancer.

And that's the other thing. Breast cancer seems like it's the ONLY cancer around during the month of October--or even year round. That little pink ribbon seems to trump all other cancers. When I had my appointment in oncology before I was even diagnosed I saw evidence of pink ribbons on the oncology floor--and it's ONCOLOGY it's not "breast ONCOLOGY"--so what about women who have cervical, uterine, or ovarian cancer? Are these cancers any less "female" than breast cancer? And especially with ovarian cancer--something that is very hard to detect given how interior one's ovaries are--this is a cancer that is often caught very late and that further research money and resources should absolutely be devoted towards--why should breast cancer be such a priority for women? Truthfully, heart disease is the leading cause of death in terms of illness for women--but it doesn't receive nearly the funding. And other types of cancers often don't get as much funding and public support because breast cancer and that little pink ribbon seem to envelop and encompass so much of the public imagination in terms of cancer.

But what really chafes me is the corporatization of pink ribbon culture--the idea that corporations are marketing themselves and masquerading as philanthropic organizations when it's mainly a marketing ploy. I don't meant to suggest that it's sinister or that individual people in these corporations don't care about breast cancer research or may in fact be people with breast cancer. But the bottom line for these companies is, in fact, the bottom line--it's making money. Avon and Estee Lauder and Yoplait and Dress Barn and every other company, large or small, that sells something with a pink ribbon on it is making money not losing money. They either charge more money to cover the cost of turning a product temporarily pink or branding it with a pink ribbon or they take the tax write-off from the donation and the money comes from their marketing department usually--so the profit margin remains untouched in terms of the item being sold.

[Aside #3: A book by Gayle Sulik (Oxford UP) that will be coming out at the end of October really touches on the problems with pink ribbon corporate culture--click here for the Amazon link]

And to return to the activism piece, the problem with certain corporations is that while they may be donating money for a breast cancer "cure"--their product or their practices may, in fact, be contributing to carcinogens in the environment that actually CAUSE CANCER. The best case in point is the whole reason for having breast cancer awareness month in the first place--Astra Zeneca. In 1985 Astra Zeneca began to work with groups like the American Cancer Society to promote mammography and breast self exams during October as part of a National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But the emphasis is always on detection and TREATMENT--something that Astra Zeneca would naturally promote since they make tomoxifen, a hormone treatment that women who have breast cancer are often on for 5 years (I'll be starting my own regimen in November post-surgery). Astra Zeneca's parent company is Imperial Chemical--they make herbicides that have known carcinogenic properties--that have been linked, in fact, to cancer.

So what we really need in October is to not just rush to buy every pink beribboned item that we can find because this will help to find a cure for breast cancer. Instead, we need to question how these funds are being used (what percentage will actually go to breast cancer research for example?) and most especially we need to stop being aware of breast cancer and start to become activists against the environmental pollutants that cause all types of cancer.


  1. For those of you who didn't get to see it, Jen's talk was amazing: very honest and articulately delivered. I was honored to be there.

  2. Jen -

    I'm so proud of you for doing the talk, facing this the way you have and generally as a whole! ;)
    I heard a piece on NPR's Science Friday a while a go that talks about a potential vaccine - it's worth a listen: