October is a great time of the year. Those of us who live in certain climates are treated to a beautiful show from nature as the leaves on trees turn vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows. Kids of all ages rejoice in Halloween festivities, dressing up in costumes and stuffing their faces with candy. It's a life-affirming month, assuming that you can avoid what has come to be the tyranny of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
By no means do I take breast cancer lightly. Almost 30 years ago, when my mom was only 33 years old, she discovered pus oozing out of one of her nipples. She saw a doctor, had a biopsy, and learned that she had cancer. In those days, there were few choices and a lot of stigma, particularly for a woman so young. Immediately following the biopsy results, she was rushed into surgery, had a mastectomy, and at the same time, received a breast implant so she would be "normal." I was only four and my sister was not even a year old at the time, and we know how lucky we are to still have our mom in our lives, even if the implant leaked and caused other long-term health issues.
Last year, Dr. Samantha King wrote a groundbreaking book, Pink Ribbons, Inc. about the travesty of the mockery of a sham that is the pink ribbon campaign. Misty McCormick Chisum's review of the book at Feminist Review sums up exactly how I felt when I learned about what the pink ribbons were really about:
Who hasn’t done it? Who hasn’t bought that extra cup of yogurt or that pink scarf that matches nothing in the closet just to show support for the breast cancer cause? Most women have seen what breast cancer can do in the lives of real women, whether we have endured it first-hand or watched a loved one struggle to survive. I have always felt that sweet inner glow after making a purchase if I knew that a small percentage of the proceeds would go to support breast cancer research. As a consumer, I felt that I was doing my part. I never questioned why my philanthropy needed to be tied directly to my consumerism. I never questioned it, that is, until I read Pink Ribbons, Inc.
What do big corporations and politicians have in common? According to Samantha King, an Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Physical and Health Education, both groups have profited from our society’s fascination with breast cancer. King offers a searing discussion of the push toward “strategic philanthropy” in the last two decades of the 20th Century. With the current stress on cause-related marketing, corporations exploit the public’s civic goodwill as they fight “to gain ownership over the issue.”
Reading King’s analysis of the issue made me for the first time question who really benefits when I “think pink” at the cash register.
Corporations push breast cancer in October because it works to sell more products. Women worry that some day they will face breast cancer or already know someone who has. They want to help. And what way is better than to buy something that promises to do good? The reality is that very little of the amount women spend on the pink products wind up at charitable institutions. An ABC News Report from last October pointed out that Campbell's donated a whopping 3.5 cents for every can of soup it sold. To raise a mere $36 to fight breast cancer from the Yoplait campaign, a person needs to eat three cups of yogurt a day for four months.
Not only is this not especially helpful, but it can be counterproductive. Ironically, "Breast Cancer Awareness Month" came about from AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company (see Amanda's BlogHer post from yesterday on how drug companies profit from disease marketing) that also manufactures an herbicide known to cause cancer. As other companies jumped on the bandwagon, eager to sell their wares to women who want to do something they can feel good about, the number of products that have links to cancer that are being sold in the name of cancer awareness or even "cures" are concerning. Two prime examples are Revlon, which sponsors a run/walk for breast cancer research and contains high levels of toxic chemicals in some of its products, and Yoplait, whose ubiquitous pink lids must be sent in order for the company to make a donation and who may use dairy products with potentially cancer-causing hormones in them. If you think about it, the logic of buying a bag of pink M&Ms to help prevent breast cancer makes little sense given that obesity increases the risk of breast cancer. (See Breast Cancer Awareness's Think Before You Pink information for more details on cosmetic companies and breast cancer, as well as lists of products that do not use cancer-causing ingredients.)
Because they know that this is as much about selling a variety of consumer goods as it is about breast cancer, many women who are living with the effects of breast cancer feel exploited by the pink ribbon push. Laurie at Not Just About Cancer, who has a "don't buy pink crap" label for her blog posts, wrote:
My bag now sports a button, courtesy of Jeanne Sather of the Assertive Cancer Patient. It's text reads "Boycott October! Don't buy PINK products. Don't EXPLOIT women with breast cancer."
Speaking of Jeanne Sather of the Assertive Cancer Patient, she writes that in October:
I'll be writing letters to companies that market pink ribbon products--and expect to be rewarded for it with increased sales and profits. I'll post those letters on my blog for those of you who want to copy them.
I'll also be offering suggestions for ways, other than retail therapy, to help women with breast cancer. Meanwhile, DON'T "shop for the cure." It's a lie.
Jeanne's September post seeking a Canadian husband (universal health care) brings up another important point about the fallacy of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Making women aware of the disease is one step. Many pink ribbon donations are used to provide free mammograms to women with no health insurance because early detection is helpful to surviving the disease. See the problem? If women don't have health insurance and can't afford a mammogram, how the hell are women going to have their cancer treated? This type of program thus effectively saves no lives. My mom was lucky – she detected her cancer early and had the ability to have it treated. That is why she is alive today, and none of these pink ribbon campaigns address that issue, which is a much broader policy issue. Instead, they make money off of women who think that they are helping others.
It's not that there is nothing that the average woman can do to assist in the fight against breast cancer. Check out the amazing resources from the non-profit advocacy group Breast Cancer Awareness's Think Before You Pink counter-campaign. Don't buy products you didn't plan on buying anyway. If M&Ms were on your shopping list, then it can't hurt to buy a pink bag instead of a regular one. That's an extra 14 cents (or however the math works out) that will now go to breast cancer causes that you would have spent anyway. But if M&Ms were not on your list, why not just donate the bag's purchase price directly to a cause you support? Not only will the organization get the full benefit of the $3.25 (or however much a big bag of M&Ms cost), you can also write the amount off of your taxes, fattening your own bottom line (and this was NOT meant to be a pun, although it is certainly applicable in my own life) instead of some corporation's.
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