Tuesday, October 4, 2011

How Breast Cancer Awareness Exploits Women

Back when I was a teenager, and a young budding feminist, I remember articles in Seventeen magazine about breast cancer awareness month. Back then, there were ads and campaigns to remind women of all ages to do self breast checks, campaigns to get poor women mammograms if they couldn't afford them, and educational information about breast health. I particularly remember this comic from my early adulthood by artist and writer Alison Bechdel
It was because of this education that I began doing self breast exams, and at the age of 16 I found a lump. It turned out to be a swollen lymph node, the result of an allergic reaction to Teen Spirit antiperspirant. But my gyno was impressed that I was doing self breast exams, and encouraged me to keep doing it. And I was proud that women were talking to other women about breast cancer and educating each other about it. 

But then the pink ribbon came along and all that went to shit. 

These days, breast cancer awareness month is all about how many items can be slapped with a pink ribbon and sold to consumers who want to feel like they're doing something but don't know how. The pink ribbon campaign only serves to exploit women, and chances are good the money you spent on a pink product didn't go to help anyone but a corporation
As Aimee Picchi writes at AOL's Daily Finance, the breast cancer-specific packaging is more an indication of savvy marketing than corporate benevolence. In some cases, there's no guarantee at all that part of your purchase price will go to a charity; Procter and Gamble will only donate two cents of your pink Swiffer purchase if you have a specific coupon that appeared in newspapers a couple of weeks ago, for instance. In others, the fine print tells you there's a cap on donations — e.g., $15,000 for Herr's Whole Grain Pretzel Ribbons — so if you buy the product after the limit's been reached, your money goes exactly where it would go if you bought the normal package. And in still other cases, such as Hershey's Bliss chocolates, the donation is not only capped (at $300,000 there), but entirely separate from sales of the product, so there's no reason at all to buy the pink package unless you like your chocolate gendered.
So not only may your money not be going where you think it should go, but a deadly and serious disease that affects mostly women (yes men can get and can die from breast cancer too, but it's not nearly as common) is being used to sell crap you don't need. No one has ever been cured by awareness. No woman has ever been spared breast cancer because you bought a tacky magnet at Bed Bath and Beyond. 

And what is "awareness" anyway? Do you really think there is someone in the US that is unaware of breast cancer? It's become such a buzz word that people nod knowingly when they hear it and seldom take the time to think about what it really means. And what it really means is that people go apeshit over the pink ribbon because they're helping. They are helping, right? Well no.
Still, one might argue that some good is being done, and no obvious harm, so why fuss? Blogger Jeanne Sather calls bullshit: "Breast cancer is a disease. Not a marketing opportunity." (At her blog, The Assertive Cancer Patient, you can see Sather sporting a T-shirt that reads "Fuck awareness. Find a cure." The "u" in "Fuck" is a pink ribbon.) Exploiting a devastating disease in order to reap greater profits — while pretending it's all about funding research, at least until you're directly questioned about the fine print — may be legal and may even be "good business," but man, is it ever icky. How many consumers realize their pink purchase is probably not doing a damned thing — or that any donation the company does make to charity is likely to be far exceeded by the extra dough they pocket by essentially tricking customers into believing every pink ribbon equals a donation? Says Sather, simply, "This is wrong."
And women with breast cancer have no way to opt out. If you have breast cancer, hell if you just have breasts, then you participate in this circus of exploitation whether you want to or not. 

And what is to be made of the fact that most of these products are stereotypically associated with women?
The ultrafeminine theme of the breast-cancer "marketplace" -- the prominence, for example, of cosmetics and jewelry -- could be understood as a response to the treatments' disastrous effects on one's looks. But the infantilizing trope is a little harder to account for, and teddy bears are not its only manifestation. A tote bag distributed to breast cancer patients by the Libby Ross Foundation (through places such as the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center) contains, among other items, a tube of Estee Lauder Perfumed Body Crème, a hot-pink satin pillowcase, an audiotape "Meditation to Help You with Chemotherapy," a small tin of peppermint pastilles, a set of three small inexpensive rhinestone bracelets, a pink-striped "journal and sketch book," and -- somewhat jarringly -- a small box of crayons. Marla Willner, one of the founders of the Libby Ross Foundation, told me that the crayons "go with the journal -- for people to express different moods, different thoughts. . ." though she admitted she has never tried to write with crayons herself. Possibly the idea is that regression to a state of childlike dependency puts one in the best frame of mind with which to endure the prolonged and toxic treatments. Or it may be that, in some versions of the prevailing gender ideology, femininity is by its nature incompatible with full adulthood -- a state of arrested development. Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars.
 On top of this, some truly despicable thinking has arisen from all of this, and that is the notion that breast cancer awareness is about saving breasts instead of women. One of the more disgusting campaigns I have seen is Save Second Base.  On their web site, they sell such gems as this:
Kelly - Fitted T-shirt
Gross, I know. I've also seen Save the Tatas, shirts that say I <3 Boobs, etc. All of these serve to distract from the fact that breast cancer can take a woman's life. 

So what can you do? For one, stop buying this crap. Donate directly to the American Cancer Society, earmarked for breast cancer if you wish. Educate yourself about prevention - don't smoke, get healthy and active, and stop eating bad food for a start. Advocate for cleaner, carcinogen free work and public spaces while making your home a carcinogen free environment. Do self breast exams and remind other women to do so too. Get mammograms. Become a champion of breastfeeding. Encourage other women to breastfeed, and if you have children, nurse them

Like rape, domestic violence, sexual assault, and other violence done to women, I do wish for an end to breast cancer in my life time. I just hope we get better at going about it. 


  1. I heard on the radio that in laboratories, a virus has been found that kills all 7 types of breast cancer, but does not appear to be harmful to humans. They haven't done clinical studies yet though. The DJ didn't mention "who" was doing the studies or made the discovery, so not sure about the accuracy.

    ONE WAY TO HELP find a cure for breast cancer would be to volunteer for research studies. The Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, with the help of Avon, is creating what they call an "Army of Women." Volunteers are sent emails about studies they can participate in for breast cancer research. Some are simply questionnaires, some are samples (blood, urine, tissue), but the volunteer chooses which studies she is willing to participate in, if any. They need healthy women as well as women who do or have had breast cancer. More information can be found at http://www.armyofwomen.org/

    They are accepting monetary donations as well, if you would prefer to help that way.

  2. I wish there were more awareness on how to lessen the chance of getting breast cancer. (Breastfeeding for a cumulative 2 years has been proven to lower the chances of a woman getting breast cancer by quite a bit) But nuuuuu don't want to make those who choose other infant feeding options for one reason or another to "Feel bad"

  3. I agree entirely with this article. "Awareness" has become a cliche at this point, and a marketing plan at worst. The breast cancer foundation aren't the only ones doing it either. What irritates me about the breast cancer movement is that it receives SOOOOOOOOO much attention, when the fact of the matter is that breast cancer is one of the more survivable cancers. It can be disfiguring, yes, but one can live without breasts. You can't live without a colon, without a pancreas, without a liver, without lungs. My best friend's dad died of liver cancer because, well, you can't live without a liver that functions. And looking at scholarships for his children, there's ALL KINDS of breast cancer scholarships... but not one for liver cancer. There are other diseases that need CURED, people. Not toying around with curing them so that the pharmaco-medical complex can keep drawing in the big bucks. Frankly, I hate to be conspiracy theorist but I think if there were a cure for these diseases the pharmaco-medical complex wouldn't let it be released because the cash flow would slow.

    OK, I've spent my two cents. I was overjoyed to read this article because it's something that has been digging at me for a while.

  4. While it is tempting to fall into the conspiracy that pharmaceutical companies would distract us from a cure, it just doesn't make sense. The pharmaceutical companies are the ones that would be dispensing and profiting from the cure. Just because cancer may be curable doesn't mean it will stop occurring, it just means it's no longer a death sentence (we're already part way there...many treatments, though expensive and taxing to the body, have helped a percentage of people survive). So, Big Pharma would still make a profit, and may even appeal to some of the individuals who forgo chemo treatments because they prefer quality to quantity of life.