I started writing this post at the beginning of the month. I thought about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it for a long time. October is a trying month for me in a couple of ways. Both my mother and I are breast cancer survivors and her birthday is at the beginning of the month. A month that should be a celebration of my mother’s life brings with it a month slathered in pink bullshit in the guise of cancer awareness. Each October when I celebrate my mother’s life, I am reminded of how close I came to losing her. How long and trying and excruciating her battle was. I wouldn’t have been able to go through what I went through had I not seen how brave and strong my mother was throughout her surgical process. She was there with me, everyday in the hospital, everyday at home, helping me dress and change, helping me care for my wounds and scars and drains. To have to contend with that personal connection to my mother and the unshakable bond we will always have because we went through this process at the same time that our culture becomes swaddled in pink products, perky-breasted celebrity PSAs showing how much they care about women who face this diagnosis, frankly, it’s a real bitch.
So here is my take on all those “awareness” and “pink power” products and all the talking heads trying to put some sort of fluffy, pearly, sexy spin on a disease that, let’s face it, still kills more than 40,000 women a year and will affect 1 in 8.
It’s that time of year again, when America bathes itself in coat of Pepto Bismal in the name of Breast Cancer Awareness.
It’s well-meaning. It’s meant to raise awareness and money for research and programs that seemingly assist patients. But the truth of the matter is it’s a month of product pushing under the guise of charity. You can buy a $23 designer lipstick from Esteé Lauder and feel good about the $2 (not even 10%) that go towards their in-house foundation. The list of products – exclusively pitched to women – proudly pink and proudly declaring their support for breast cancer is longer than I am tall, but many donate only a small fraction of the cost and most donate nothing at all to research organizations or foundations.
But is it really about awareness or raising money that actually does something for patients?
A dominant voice in “Pink October” is the Komen Foundation, the breast cancer charity founded by Nancy Brinker in the wake of her sister’s death from breast cancer. If you instantly know what a pink ribbon symbolizes, you can thank Komen. If you know that mammography is the best screening measure for breast cancer (particularly in women 50 and older), you can thank Komen. If you’ve ever participated in Race for the Cure, thank Komen. The list of the national effects of Brinker and her foundation are seemingly unending, but do they make a significant enough impact on women, men, and survivability from cancer?
Let’s some things straight about breast cancer:
- 40,000 women and 450 men will die this year from breast cancer.
- 1 in 8 women in the United States will be diagnosed during their lifetime.
- More than a quarter of a million (about 258,000) new cases of breast cancer (in women alone) occur each year.
- Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women (apart from skin cancers).
- Breast cancer is the second deadliest (edged out by lung cancer).
- The survival rate rate is still only 1 in 35.
- Presently the American Cancer Society estimates there are 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the US.
- The survival rate has increased by 60% since mammography became a widespread screening measure.
- African American women are 5 to 8 times more likely to die from breast cancer than white women.
In marketing circles, “to pink” means to link a brand or a product or even the entire National Football League to one of the most successful charity campaigns of all time. Like it or not — and some people don’t like it at all — the pinking of America has become a multibillion-dollar business, a marketing, merchandising and fund-raising opportunity that is almost unrivaled in scope. There are pink-ribbon car tires, pink-ribbon clogs, pink eyelash curlers — the list goes on.
Down on the 50-yard line on this early October day isNancy G. Brinker, the chief executive who has done more than any other to create what might be called Pink Inc. With a C.E.O.’s eye, Ms. Brinker has turned her foundation, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, into a juggernaut. She has tied this nonprofit to hundreds of for-profit brands and spread its message far and wide with“Race for the Cure” foot races. She has, in effect, invested to maximize returns. Over the years, Komen has raised many billions of dollars to urge women to get mammograms, as well as for treatment and research.
“It’s a democratization of a disease,” Ms. Brinker, who is the Cowboys’ honorary captain for the day, says just before the coin toss. “It’s drilling down into the deepest pockets of America.”
The story of Komen is, as much as anything, a story of savvy marketing. Ms. Brinker has rebranded an entire disease by putting an upbeat spin on fighting it. Her foundation generated about $420 million in the 2010 fiscal year alone. Perhaps more than any other nonprofit organization, Komen shapes the national conversation about breast cancer.
If you’re feeling hopeful about the strides being made against this disease, rather than frustrated by the lack of progress, that may well reflect Komen’s handiwork. If you think women should be concerned about developing breast cancer, that’s often Komen’s message, too. And if you think mammography is the best answer at the moment, that, again, is the Komen mantra.
Like Big Oil, Big Food and Big Pharma, Big Pink has its share of critics. Some patient advocates complain that Komen and other pink-ribbon charities sugarcoat breast cancer, which kills about 40,000 American women and 450 men annually. Others complain that pink marketing, despite the many millions it raises for charities, is just another way to move merchandise and that it exploits cancer by turning it into an excuse to go shopping. And some pink-theme products have no relationship with any charities at all. (Consumers should check before buying.)
In any case, these critics say, all of those pink ribbons and pink products create more good will for charities and corporations than game-changing medical advances for patients.
The downside to Komen’s slick packaging and upbeat pink image is that it focuses on mammograms and screening as the answer to breast cancer’s long and often deadly reach. But breast cancer awareness isn’t just about mammograms, a screening measure that is not effective on the fatty breast tissue of younger women. Prevention measures need to include campaigns that encourage women to talk openly about family history, especially in minority cultures or religions where open discussion of women’s health and reproductive care is not the norm. It needs to include campaigns aimed at imploring women to speak to their doctors about their health care and risks not just cancer but other illnesses and risks factors that can raise the risk of cancer (smoking, obesity, etc). It needs to include ad campaigns that educate low-income, under-insured or uninsured women on the resources available for wellness care, screening, and access to doctors and resources if they are diagnosed. The New York Times continues:
This kind of mammography marketing by a variety of nonprofits frustrates patient advocates like Frances Visco, who says it lulls the public into thinking that breast cancer is a manageable chronic disease, while tens of thousands of women are dying from it. Routine screening does identify many breast cancers at early stages, when they are most treatable. It also ends up increasing the numbers of people with precancers and slow-growing tumors who may get unneeded invasive treatment, she says, while doctors still don’t know how to prevent many of the most aggressive breast cancers from spreading.
“If we continue to pretend that it is making a huge difference, we are not going to do the real work and figure out how we can save tens of thousands of lives every year,” says Ms. Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, a network of hundreds of patient and professional organizations.
Regardless of efforts of Nancy Brinker and her supporters and detractors, the truth of the matter is that breast cancer is still deadly and a diagnosis of breast cancer still greatly increases a woman’s risk of uterine or ovarian cancer. These facts don’t change with any of the cute merchandise available around every corner, every October.