Some years ago, an acquaintance asked me to participate in a “Race for the Cure” event. It made me laugh because, well, I wasn’t a runner. I hated running. The only thing you’d ever see me racing for would be the couch at the end of the day. But I asked what the race was hoping to cure.
“Breast cancer,” she said.
“Oh,” I replied. “Wow. What a great idea. It’s good to know that people are finally talking about it and doing something.”
I still declined to participate in the race, but the invitation alone had achieved one of the movement’s primary objectives. It made me aware.
Because once upon a time, believe it or not, people were not all that aware of breast cancer. As recently as the 1970’s, breast cancer was barely acknowledged by the medical community, much less talked about in public. The word “breast” was a bit taboo back then, too impolite to discuss. With the exception of those in the “make love not war” hippie culture, and those who participated in the emerging feminist movement that is sometimes recalled by the mythical collective burning of a few bras, matters related to the female breast were just not talked about.
There were several reasons for this. A certain misguided prudery was one, and it sadly kept many women who were diagnosed fearful, embarrassed, and full of shame. But another was that, to be frank, this was seen as a particularly “female” concern. Women had very little power, and we weren’t taken seriously about much. Neither were our “particular” diseases.
Then, in 1974, First Lady Betty Ford revealed that she had suffered from breast cancer and openly discussed her mastectomy. Once she went public, a few other well-known women did the same. The winds began to shift, and women threw taboos out the window. They wanted to be screened. They wanted to catch the disease early. They started seeking out mammograms in droves previously unheard of.
The demand for something new was there, and the seeds were planted for a multi-billion dollar industry. But the seeds took a while to sprout. In fact, breast cancer was becoming an increasingly common and alarming disease, one the medical research community either couldn’t seem to get a handle on, or wasn’t bothering to. The breast cancer protests of the early 1990’s weren’t cute, pink parties. They were driven by angry women, those who’d been afflicted with the disease and those who’d lost loved ones to it. These women demanded that the government allocate more money to research and prevention and take action against corporations whose products and pollution seemed to contribute to the proliferation of breast cancer. Their goal was to increase funding for research, treatment and support for those afflicted by this horrifying and often fatal disease.
The point wasn’t to objectify women, to raise money for a foundation, or to give businesses a hook for generating even more profit.
And yet, it wasn’t long before that’s exactly the direction where things went.
Breast cancer awareness morphed from a movement of solidarity and strength into a multi-billion dollar industry. Although breast cancer researchers and advocates are constantly begging for money, the disease has almost obscene amounts of it. In 2010, the National Institutes of Health allocated $763 million to the study of breast cancer, twice as much as what it committed to any other cancer. The Department of Defense also funds breast cancer research, to the tune of $150 million a year, and several state governments do the same. Those numbers don’t even account for all the money raised by the – get this – 1,400 IRS-recognized, tax-exempt charities in this country devoted to breast cancer. The Susan G. Komen Foundation, Queen of the Breast Cancer Industry, boasts assets totaling over $390 million, and it grossed $420 million last year alone. All together, an estimated $6 billion is raised every year in the name of breast cancer, with no end to the contributions in sight.
Nancy G. Brinker, the Founder, CEO and marketing genius of the Susan G. Komen Foundation (named for her sister who died of the disease in 1982 at the age of 36) may be the one person most singularly responsible for this financial boon. Certainly with the best of intentions in loving memory of her sister, and a determination to help other women avoid her fate, she took awareness to a whole new level. Few people could argue with her success in bringing what was once a taboo subject out into the open by establishing relationships with corporations, governments, and the press while staging ubiquitous Race for the Cure events all across the nation.
If awareness were actually what we still needed, this would be great. But what happened along the way is that untold numbers of businesses became aware of the ability to create a pink cash cow for themselves – even or especially those businesses which actually produce products that contribute to the breast cancer epidemic.
This practice even has its own term now: “pinkwashing.” This refers specifically to companies that use the breast cancer pink ribbon to sell products with ingredients that are proven or suspected to place people at risk for developing cancer. Komen itself has been involved in many of these efforts. Last year, Komen marketed its own perfume called Promise Me. Funds from the sale of the perfume went toward breast cancer research, but an advocacy organization was quick to publicize that previous research demonstrated some of the chemicals in the perfume were linked to cancer in animals. More famously, Komen partnered a few years ago with Kentucky Fried Chicken and their “Buckets for the Cure” campaign. Every bucket sold generated 50 cents for Komen, increased KFC’s profits (because many buckets were purchased at least in part to support breast cancer – awareness? research? treatment? – efforts), and increased that customer’s likelihood of eventually developing breast cancer.
So, with this model, everyone’s a winner here. The businesses sell more products and enhance their image while contributing to Komen’s already vast wealth. But what does Komen do with all that money? Lots of things, not all bad. But the main push of Komen’s efforts is to convince women they need mammograms. If getting regular mammograms were truly the best thing women could do to protect themselves from breast cancer, this would be an admirable initiative.
However, there is mounting evidence that not only are mammograms not as effective as we’ve been led to believe, but in fact, the radiation emitted during the procedure actually causes cancer. If true, then why the push for mammograms? Could be because Komen (and the American Cancer Society, for that matter) receives substantial funding from makers of mammography equipment such as General Electric and DuPont. It’s also interesting to note that the primary corporate sponsor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is AstraZeneca. It makes the well-known cancer drug Tamoxifen – which also causes cancer.
Clearly, it is far more profitable for these companies to detect and treat breast cancer than to prevent it, and this is in Komen’s best interests as well. It could be argued further that drugs and procedures that cause cancer are also in the industry’s best interests.
Because the only interests here, really, are the financial ones.
Honestly, does Komen have any incentive to find the cure at this point? No more than the drug and mammogram industries do. Because, think about it. When your industry is raking in billions and billions of dollars, why would you want to go out of business?
Oh, the irony. The movement that began with calls to hold corporations responsible for the cancer causing products they manufactured is now an opportunity for those very corporations to make a financial killing.
All this money, all these donations… and we are no closer to that elusive “cure” than the day we began to become aware.
No closer to the cure, but boy, some people sure are making a hell of a good living running the race.
Are you looking to donate to an organization that truly IS making a difference? Check out the Breast Cancer Fund. Prevention trumps awareness.
Next week, I’ll discuss just how effective – or ineffective and dangerous – mammograms are, not to mention the dangers of radiation, chemotherapy, and the drugs used to treat the disease.