October: Breast Cancer Awareness Scam Month

5 years ago

Last Thursday (Oct. 4, 2012, if you are keeping track), I was stopped by a woman standing on the corner of 79th St and Amsterdam Avenue as I walked through the Upper West Side of Manhattan to meet my friend for a sushi dinner. She had a stack of quarter-size papers in her hand. She held one out for me to take.

"Buy a cookie for Breast Cancer Awareness Month," she said.

Photo by Clyde Robinson. (Flickr)

Instead of stopping, looking her squarely in the eye, and saying, "Are you fucking insane? I should increase my consumption of a product loaded with sugar and saturated fat and put myself at higher risk than I already am for getting breast cancer so that a measly few cents can be donated to some vague 'awareness' campaign that is unlikely to reach the small audience that at this point is not 'aware' of breast cancer? Why don't I just throw my money on the street?" I took a deep breath and walked by. I may have even politely mumbled, "No, thank you," because my mom, a breast cancer survivor of 30 years now, taught me to not be rude. But if I am honest with you, dear reader, the only reason I did not explode on this poor woman who is just trying to "help" was because I was late to meet my friend.

It has been over four years since Dr. Samantha King's seminal book, Pink Ribbons, Inc. documented how companies exploit women's fears of breast cancer and everyone's desire to help do something about it, making it a gazillion dollar industry -- not really for helping women, but for companies' profits. Pink Ribbons, Inc. the documentary was released in Canada at the end of 2011, and in May in the US. I wrote my first anti-Breast Cancer Awareness Month post on BlogHer in 2007, after seeing a prime time news story about it.

Breast Cancer Action, an amazing activist group that does more meaningful work for women and breast cancer issues than the uber-gajillion dollar-budgeted Susan G. Komen Foundation, has offered its essential Think Before You Pink guidelines for ten years. Ten years! Yet we are more awash in silly pink ribbons and tearful platitudes than ever because it sells.

The problem with Breast Cancer Awareness month splits into three parts:

First, it preys on people's fears of cancer and desire to do good, encouraging them to buy things to "raise awareness" or "find a cure." These same things are often laden with chemicals or hormones that can cause cancer in the first place. Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel has a pretty comprehensive round up of some this year's most noxious "breast cancer" items. We can always rely on Revlon (sponsors of the Run-Walk for Breast Cancer) and Avon (sponsor of the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer) to throw in some special cosmetics, loaded with cancer-causing parabens, for October. Plus there are the SUVs that guzzle gas and add pollution, among other past favorites.

Even if you are fine with buying these things (nothing wrong with that, I swear I'm not judging even though I sound like I am), your money is not really going to make a difference. A lot of these places are not clear as to how much of your purchase price is going to a breast cancer charity, or even what that charity is. Most product promotions have a cap on the donation. Once they sell X number of products to get to that maximum donation, they sure as hell don't yank the pink boxes from the shelves. Nah, they let you just go right on buying, thinking that you are helping something more than just some company bottom line. And again, where exactly is your money going? Not all products even spell that out.

Secondly, raising money for "breast cancer awareness" is absurd at this point. The people who are not aware of breast cancer are our most vulnerable populations: poor, uneducated women who don't speak English. Where are the ads that help them? Why do they all feature stereotypically "attractive" thin white women (and sometimes a few women of color, I concede)? Who is pouring money into getting out into underserved neighborhoods with culturally, linguistically, and reading-level appropriate materials to let ignored populations of women know about their risk? Oh, that's right -- pretty much no one.

That's because we are too busy making ads that say cute things (because breast cancer is totally cute, right?) like "Save the Ta-tas." Jessica at Speaker's Corner in the ATX addresses this very, very well.

I can barely summon the strength to get into the stupidity of raising awareness for breast cancer, getting women free mammograms because they have no health insurance, and then not having any real, comprehensive program in place to help women who do, after their awareness has been raised, find out they have breast cancer. This disproportionately strikes women of color, incidentally. Raising awareness is not useful if we aren't also going to do actual, concrete things that save women's lives when they discover that they do have breast cancer.

Thirdly, we're no closer to the cure now than we were when all this pink ribbon bullshit began. It's great to put money into research -- I will never argue with that. But the dollars that pour in from Breast Cancer Awareness month aren't awarded in any coordinated, scientific way. We're funding duplicate research at multiple labs, research that has long been going down a dead end path, and goodness knows what else. It doesn't make sense.

My self-assigned job every October is to raise awareness -- awareness of what a freaking scam Breast Cancer Awareness month is. There are a lot of great voices out there doing the same thing, many who are breast cancer survivors. They feel -- keenly -- the emptiness of this rah-rah, pretty in pink month. My friend Laurie Kingston at Not Just About Cancer is putting together a cool anti-pink blogroll.

Rather than buying a pink vibrator for breast cancer (not that there's anything wrong with pink vibrators...), if you want to do something about breast cancer, join Laurie's blogroll. Or watch the Pink Ribbons, Inc. documentary, or get the book from the library. Or research the various charities out there, pick one you like, and make a direct donation, which you can write off your taxes -- double bottom line good deed!

Breast cancer is serious business, and makes some people some very serious profits at our expense. Think about it. Act accordingly.

Suzanne also blogs at CUSS and Other Rants and is the author of Off the Beaten (Subway) Track.