I will undoubtedly get into trouble for this post. So be it.
October 1st marks the beginning of National Breast Cancer Awareness month, an annual international health campaign organized by major breast cancer charities every October to increase awareness of the disease and to raise funds for research into its cause, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve undoubtedly seen pink colored products in mass quantities over the past few years. It seems like everyone “goes pink” for October.
I don’t want to trivialize breast cancer with the remainder of the post. As a physician and a surgeon, I recognize the critical importance of mammograms and the devastation that breast cancer causes to thousands of women each year. I also do not want to downplay the important work that is done by some breast cancer charities to support research toward ending breast cancer as well as screening and treatment. But before you go buying pink products this October, I want to add a word of caution to everyone out there, particularly women.
First, despite all the charity events, the “awareness”, and the funding, breast cancer is NOT the leading cause of death among women. As far as a woman’s individual health is concerned, a good diet, exercise, and avoiding smoking are far more important to prevent heart disease – which happens to be the overall leading cause of death for women. Avoiding smoking is doubly important because it’s highly associated with lung cancer, which happens to be the overall leading cause of cancer deaths among women.
Second, people should be aware of the term “pinkwashing” – the outrageous corporate practice of selling products linked to an increased risk of breast cancer while claiming to care about (and profiting from) breast cancer. I encourage everyone to visit the website for “Think Before You Pink“, because it highlights a lot of the hypocrisy in pink products. One of the more striking examples may be the NFL, which started “going pink” in October 2009 to support women and breast cancer. Given recent events surrounding the NFL and domestic violence, one might question how much the NFL really supports women. Of note, domestic violence affects more women annually than does breast cancer, and October also happens to be National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Additionally, an analysis by Business Insider found that only 8% of the money spent on the plethora of pink gear sold by the NFL ended up going to research at the American Cancer Society, the supposed beneficiary of the league’s efforts. Since 2009, when pink first appeared on the field, the NFL has donated a grand total of $7 million towards the cause, while the league made $9 billion in revenue in 2012.
Third – be very critical of which charity you are supporting. Susan G Komen Foundation is one of the most widely recognized breast cancer charity, yet only 15% of its donations in 2011 went toward breast cancer research, with less going toward screening and only 5% toward treatment. For a charity that claims to be “for the cure”, spending nearly 43% of your donations on “public health awareness” seems a little suspect. I’m not claiming that others are any better, but just be aware of where your money is going. Donating directly to research institutions like Dana Farber or Memorial Sloan Kettering or to breast cancer survivor support groups might be more beneficial.
And finally, As the association Breast Cancer Awarness notes, pink ribbon products spread empty awareness – awareness that has failed to address and end the breast cancer epidemic. Pink ribbon trinkets on store shelves that promote “awareness” ultimately change nothing. We have more than enough awareness, but not nearly enough action that will make a significant difference to whether women get breast cancer or survive it. Awareness shouldn’t be the end goal; unfortunately, pink ribbon culture defuses anger about breast cancer and its devastating impact and distracts us from the meaningful actions that will achieve health justice.