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Not-So ‘Pretty in Pink’: The Politics of Breast Cancer Awareness

Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Unless you live under a rock, you’ve heard of it. Every October since 1985, the world has been awash with pink. Pink ribbons, pink t-shirts, pink marathons. Even pink food and drink. The branding of every major company turns a pink tide, clamouring to show their support. Our kids come home from school with pink pledge sheets. Videos showcasing pink-tinted survival stories fill our feeds. #thinkpink #pinktober #nobraday #fightlikeagirl #Imonyourteam #savethetatas #fcancer #paintitpink.

And why not right? This is a good thing, isn’t it? What’s the problem? #knowledgeispower, so let’s start at the beginning and work our way up.

First, let me lay out what I’m NOT doing today. I’m not getting into the medicine and science. I’ll not be assessing whether the money raised for breast cancer and actually applied to research is squandered in a criminal way. That’s not for today. That’s out of my realm of expertise. That’s beyond the scope of this blog. You may feel inclined to explore that further, you may not.

What I am doing today is talking about what critics of Breast Cancer Awareness Month call The Breast Cancer Industrial Complex. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s start at the beginning.

What is Breast Cancer Awareness Month?

In the U.S, women are said to have a 1 in 8 chance of getting breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, approximately a quarter of a million women will be diagnosed with it this year in the U.S alone. The World Cancer Research Fund says that 2 million new cases of breast cancer were found globally in 2018. Also according to the American Cancer Society, the incidence of breast cancer is on the rise.

This lends us to say: We must cure it, prevent it, tackle it. Pour our resources into researching it. Indeed. We’ve been saying that since…1985. When Breast Cancer Awareness Month was founded.

This international health campaign has the purported ‘mission’ of increasing public knowledge about breast cancer and raising funds for research into prevention and cure. It was the brainchild of the American Cancer Society and the pharma division of what was then known as Imperial Chemical Companies (now known as AstraZeneca). The explicit aim was to let everyone know that getting a mammography was your best chance at preventing breast cancer. The Pink Ribbon became the campaign symbol a few years later in a round-about way that I’ll go into later. And the rest is history. The symbol of resistance against breast cancer spread far and wide, and what critics call ‘The Breast Cancer Industrial Complex’ was born. But what does that mean? And again, what’s the problem?


There are many concerns that critics have with breast cancer awareness month, and breast cancer awareness campaigns in general, but let’s do an overview of the central ones

1- The Conflicts of Interest:

One notable concern is the conflict of interest that was seen to be present at the very birth of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (let’s just call it BCAM from now on), and the conflicts of interest that are defining part of it today. What conflict of interest? Breast Cancer Action expresses that BCAM ‘…was originally created by a drug company–now called AstraZeneca–that, in addition to producing breast cancer treatment drugs, profited from the sale of an herbicide known to cause cancer’. Accordingly, many critics believe that as a result, the BCAM campaign focuses on ‘awareness’ of mammograms as prevention, rather than on other factors (which will be discussed briefly later), and avoids meaningful engagement with causes and prevention. This conflict of interest is also seen to be exacerbated today by the number of massive corporations that spearhead breast cancer awareness campaigns, while being involved in activities that either profit from cancer, or actually play a role in causing it. This is correlated to another concern, which is discussed in the next point.

2- The Pinkwashing:

The term ‘pinkwashing’ refers to the way in which massive corporations use BCAM as a marketing strategy. Basically, they put some rose-colored glasses onto the public to display themselves in a better light. By linking themselves to breast cancer philanthropy, they obscure their connection to environmental pollutants linked with breast cancer (alongside other significant harms). In fact, the environmental causes of breast cancer have been left out of the ‘awareness’ conversation altogether. But more about that soon. For now, let’s look at a notable pinkwashing example. Susan G. Komen Foundation, one of the most prominent cancer foundations has partnered with petro-chemical company Occidental- whose practices release significant amounts of carcinogens into the environment. In 2011 Komen also partnered with Sally Beauty, which was quickly revealed to use chemicals specifically linked to breast cancer in a number of their products. They also partnered with Baker Hughes, whose fracking releases carcinogens into the environment as well. KFC and Yoplait partnerships were found problematic for similar reasons.

Perhaps you’re thinking ‘yes, yes, but everything causes cancer, at least they’re raising money for the cure and for researching prevention’. There’s more than one thing wrong with that statement, unfortunately. The upcoming points reveal why.

3- The Profits Over Progress:

The first notable moment that showed ‘breast cancer awareness’ veering off course, away from actual progress and into commodification and profits, was unfortunately right at the beginning. With the pink ribbon. After struggling alongside her grandmother’s, sister’s, and daughter’s breast cancer, a lady called Charlotte Haley started making peach ribbons in the early 90s when she was 68 years old. She distributed them at supermarkets with cards which stated the following:

“The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8billion, only 5 percent goes to cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon”.

This little act of rebellion, courage, and hope spread fast. So fast, in fact, that Estee Lauder Execs asked Charlotte Haley if they could use her ribbon. She said no- it’s too commercial. So Estee Lauder released the ribbon anyway- in pink instead of peach, to avoid any ‘copyright issues’. And there the symbol for breast cancer was both born and co-opted for profit. Now every major company brings the pink to their merchandise when October rolls around- and it’s found that more money is spent on marketing that merch than goes to donations. What’s more, according to a 2015 New York Times article, some places, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, have ‘fine print disclaimers’, which state that no money at all is donated to breast cancer. Or, that they have a ‘cap’ on what they give (but they don’t say what that ‘cap’ is). So how much of the money you ‘donate’ makes its way to research? And how much of that research is productive? It’s hard to know. Let’s look at why next.

4- The Lack of Transparency:

According to Breast Cancer Action:

“Breast cancer research is a multibillion-dollar industry. In just one year of funding–2007–the National Cancer Institute (NCI), spent $572.4 million on breast cancer research. That same year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spent an additional $706 million. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation had total revenues that year of nearly $162 million. The Komen organization also claimed in 2007 that it had invested nearly $1 billion in breast cancer since its founding in 1980”

There are hundreds of other organizations and agencies, private and federal, that raise funds for breast cancer research, and that conduct the research. But apparently, these different research organizations don’t coordinate. They don’t collaborate on ideas. They aren’t transparent about what they are researching, about the outcomes they are arriving at, at how exactly the funds are being spent. In an article for Vox, journalist Chavie Lieber confirms this, underlining that ‘the money trail of allocated funds to cancer research is nearly impossible to track…’. Lieber highlights the book Pink Ribbon Blues, written by medical sociologist Gayle Sulik, which exposes the ‘pink products industry’. Sulik has also started the Breast Cancer Consortium, a research group that gives people access to critical health literacy and evidence-based medicine around breast cancer. So there’s an increasing movement of people trying to expose the issues of this industry, and to help fill in the gaps. Which brings us to the next point.

5- The Missing Pieces:

Much of breast cancer ‘awareness’ focuses on mammography screening (which has been strongly called into dispute now), and on emphasizing ‘individual risk’, and ‘individual solutions’. On one hand, that does give the individual power over their health. And we do have power over our health- to an extent. But that’s not enough. Not nearly. In fact, focusing on lifestyle and behavior feeds into the capitalist notion that the individual choices (and genetics) are primarily to blame. “You aren’t managing your emotions well”, “You aren’t eating right”, “You aren’t getting regular check-ups”. And I’m not saying these elements don’t have a role. What’s missing here is a systemic holistic approach that takes into account the environment we are a part of, and the major players that affect that environment. The focus is on cancer treatment drugs, and on telling people to reduce stress, to not smoke, to get screened. But this myopic lens completely downplays the risks of pesticides and other chemicals and environmental factors. On what’s in our food, our air, our water, our cosmetics, and everything else. On the additives. On everything that big business plays a major hand in. And studies show these factors play a significant role in cancer. It’s just if the organizations admit it, massive regulatory change has to take place, and profits drop.

6- The Prettification:

A less-focused on but also important concern raised by critics is what I’m going to call the ‘prettification’ of breast cancer. In an article written for the Pacific Standard in 2017, Jacqueline Clark shares that her in-depth interviews with breast cancer patients revealed the pressure to:

‘…present a feminine self, and to also be positive and upbeat, despite the pain and suffering they endure as a result of being ill….Even when they recovered physically from the disease, the women were not immune to the effects of the “pink ribbon culture,” as other work from the study demonstrates. Many group participants, for instance, reported that friends and family were often less than sympathetic when they expressed uncertainty about the future and/or discontent about what they had been through. As “survivors,” they were expected to be strong, positive, and upbeat, not fearful or anxious, or too willing to complain about the aftermath of their disease. The women thus learned to cover their uncomfortable emotions with a veneer of strength and courage. This, too, helps to illustrate how the “pink ribbon culture,” which celebrates survivors and survivorhood, limits the range of emotions that women who have had breast cancer are able to express. It also demonstrates how the myopic focus on survivors detracts attention from the over 40,000 women who die from breast cancer each year in the United States, as well as from the environmental causes of the disease.”

In a nutshell, breast cancer awareness marketing is found to be rife with images of upbeat ‘warrior women’. It sanitizes, feminizes, and prettifies breast cancer in an unproductive and often painful (for survivors, and the family of those who die from it) way. Rather than breaking the taboo of breast cancer and talking about it in an authentic way, it has packaged it to be palatable. But those who suffer from it don’t want you to find it palatable, because they don’t either.

What Can You Do About It?

If you want to support breast cancer awareness, fund productive research, and push for transparency and accountability, you’ll need to #thinkbeforeyoupink. Check out the website of the organization that coined that phrase, Breast Cancer Action , and check out their mini info video right now:

You can also follow some of Breast Cancer Action’s key recommendations on ‘questions to ask before you donate’:

  • How much money goes towards breast cancer programs and services? For example, Yoplait donates 10 cents for every pink yogurt lid mailed back, meaning you’d have to eat three yogurts a day during the entire four-month campaign in order to raise $36 for the cause. If a company is not giving as much as you think it should, consider giving directly to an organization or charity that you think is doing good work.
  • How are the funds being raised? Is it through the sale of cosmetics that contain chemicals suspected to cause cancer? Is it through a tournament on a golf course sprayed with pesticides? Is $1 being given each mile you test-drive a polluting car? Don’t let “pinkwashing” corporations exploit your good intentions by positioning themselves as leaders in the struggle against breast cancer while engaging in practices that may be contributing to rising rates of the disease.
  • What types of programs are being supported? If research, what kind? Is it research at major institutions that already get enormous financial support, or is it innovative research into the causes of breast cancer that is currently underfunded? If services, is it reaching the people who need it most? Campaigns that are less locally focused may siphon funds away from the community and give them to larger programs and foundations that are already well funded. Do the programs being funded make steps towards ending the epidemic? Programs supporting “breast health awareness” will not bring us any closer to stemming the rising rates of the disease.

Whether or not this is a disease that has affected you, your family, or your friends and community on an intimate level, arming yourself with knowledge is always a good thing. Look into the current mainstream research approaches, treatment plans, and prevention recommendations using a critical lens. Read studies about them. Watch the documentary Pink Ribbons Inc. Ask the question of whether this same plan that has been in place for over 50 years is actually helping people heal, or simply lining the pockets of people who profit from disease and who create the conditions for it in the first place.

This little blog couldn’t do the vastness of this topic justice, but we did our best to give you a sense of the scope. Hope you found it interesting, or at the least, informative. And as always, let us know your thoughts in the comments.



First picture: Image of Lobular Breast Cancer from Wikipedia Commons


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