In case you haven’t noticed (and it is hard not to), October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM). Founded in 1985 as a partnership between the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries (now part of AstraZeneca), NBCAM was created to promote the prevention and early detection (particularly mammograms) of breast cancer for women who might not otherwise get screened. In the early 1990s, both The Breast Cancer Research Foundation and the Susan G. Komen Foundation adopted the pink ribbon to symbolize breast cancer awareness. In the 27 years since its inception, NBCAM has grown exponentially, particularly in the consumer marketplace.
Pink Ribbons & Beyond
There are pink ribbons on yogurt containers, cosmetics, cleaning products, and soda cans. Entire products turn pink for the month of October—including certain brands of pancake mixes, ice creams, and—yes, even cat litter. The National Football League—a bastion of all things masculine—requires its players to wear something pink on their uniforms during every game played in the month of October. For women with breast cancer, it would seem that the cultural explosion of NBCAM would be only good news. After all, a percentage of the profits from these products purportedly go toward “finding a cure.” The proponents of NBCAM maintain that the more aware the country is of breast cancer, the more effort will be put into preventing and curing the disease. But among some women affected by breast cancer, a genuine backlash is growing against all the pink in October.
Pink Critics Weigh In
Women with breast cancer have been leading the charge against these awareness efforts in pink that they feel have become more about marketing to a desirable demographic than about curing breast cancer. Barbara Ehrenreich criticizes the artificial cheerfulness of the campaign, claiming that people’s buying cutesy pink products in the name of her disease makes her feel like she’s “six years old.” Dr. Susan Love wonders why, “with billions of dollars going toward ‘the cure,” we’re still using ‘slash, burn, and poison” treatments and spending next to nothing on investigating the causes of the disease.”
Scientists agree that reducing breast cancer—a complicated disease that takes many forms and manifests itself in myriad ways—to something for which there might one day be a single “cure,” is a medical fantasy. For as often as breast cancer products sell their pink products for a “cure,” oncologists are quick to remind patients that the word “cure” is really not always the appropriate term when it comes to living with cancer.
These and other questions about the effectiveness of NBCAM have been addressed in a new documentary called “Pink Ribbon, Inc.,” by Samantha King, which was released in May 2012. Breast cancer patients who are critical of all the pink in October have created the hashtag #pinknausea on Twitter to discuss their concerns with the state of the breast cancer awareness movement. Some critics have gone after companies that attach pink ribbons to products that are known carcinogens, and a nonprofit website encourages concerned citizens to donate money directly to cancer research instead. www.thinkbeforeyoupink.org
Consequences for Prostate Cancer Advocacy
So what does all the concern about National Breast Cancer Awareness Month have to do with prostate cancer advocacy? Prostate cancer advocates have long felt that their cause is being overshadowed by the ubiquity of pink ribbons in the public sphere. No similar onslaught of blue products can be found during September, which is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. But perhaps there shouldn’t be. As prostate cancer advocacy and awareness grows, there is much to be learned from the women’s movement. But, as breast cancer advocates themselves note, there is a downside to all the enthusiasm. The October sea of cheery pink consumerism has begun to drown out the concerns of the very women it purports to help.
QUESTIONS: In what ways should prostate cancer advocacy model itself after breast cancer advocacy? In what ways should it differ?
Source: Mary Elizabeth Williams, “The Tyranny of Pink,” Salon (30 May 2012). http://www.salon.com/2012/05/30/the_tyranny_of_pink/ Accessed October 16, 2012.