Today begins something called Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
It is many things to many people, and many corporations, and a number of faux charities.
Probably the only good thing about BCA month is the good writing that will come from the cancer bloggers who will expose the many who seek to cash in on and exploit false notions of breast cancer.
If we pay attention to corporate media and advertising – generally not a good idea in any event – we may find ourselves bombarded with pink ribbon this and pink ribbon that. There will be oh, so much concern, as if this were the only deadly disease plaguing the land, or, contradictorily, as if it can be “cured” with a cheerful smile, or as if buying a plastic carton of sugary, chemical laden “yogurt” with a pink ribbon on it is an answer to a public health crisis.
Some call this month “Pinktober.” I’m thinking of it as “Stinktober.”
As I say, I look forward to reading what my sister bloggers will post this month. (If you “like” my All About Thriving Facebook page, you can read links I’ll post.) This month, and all year every year, I’ll forego buying pink schlock or contributing to bogus charities and will instead think about the public discourse that goes on around breast cancer.
Right now I’m studying and slowly reading two highly recommended books. One is Gayle A. Sulik’s Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health (2011). The other is Samantha King’s Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy (2006). Both cover a range of issues, including the scandalous greed of a well-known charity that rakes in millions and gives precious little to research about metastatic breast cancer, i.e. the kind that women (and men) actually die from.
Here, I’m not able to do justice to these two great books but as I dip into them, they are helping me collect my thoughts.
BCA is a bonanza for companies that seek increased profits by branding themselves as do-gooders. They’ll slap a pink ribbon on their package and/or say they will donate x number of pennies to charity to raise money for “the cure” and “awareness.” Much of the “awareness” is on the theme that “early detection saves lives.” This is misinformation as “early detection,” i.e. getting an annual mammogram, simply does not detect a lot of breast cancers. Moreover, many early detected and early treated breast cancers will recur and metastasize in later years, even after the passage of the arbitrary five-year milestone.
If we’re going to fundraise for research, it ought to be about how to PREVENT cancer in the first place, and how to treat it successfully, particularly in its metastatic forms.
But that’s not what Pinktober is all about.
Raising “awareness” about prevention would necessarily mean public discussion about the toxins we’ve been putting into our environment and our bodies. That would implicate the processed food industry, the makers of cosmetics and feminine hygiene products, the plastics industry, let alone major fossil fuel industry polluters. I live a short drive from a Chevron oil refinery, in the East bay area where one in five women are getting breast cancer. How about some awareness and research funding about the role of Big Oil in the rise of cancer rates? Oh, but that wouldn’t be Pink.
More research might implicate other sacred cows. What about the profit-driven pharmaceutical companies? Their mission is not prevention. The bang for their buck comes in treating millions of patients with effective chemotherapy and long-term endocrine drugs like tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors. Even the focus on breast cancer comes at the expense of studying other, less common cancers. I have no interest in bashing scientists or even the corporations that employ them. Research in a capitalist economy means a race for patents and big profit margins to satisfy investors. We need more science, more and better drugs.
We also need a totally different political-economy, one not driven by profit. That’s my view and it’s not Pink.
We’ve got plenty of taxpayer money for every stinking war waged by the U.S. to defend elite economic interests. As I write this, the U.S. is bombing again in the Middle East, making new generations of enemies. Stop bombing and killing people and there’d be plenty of money for science, health care, and while we’re at it, schools and a shift to green energy.
Lest this sound like a tangent or a rant, I think it has everything to do with Pinktober.
What I’ve gleaned from the books by Gayle Sulik and Samantha King is that two major long-term forces are at play in our society, both of which frame the cancer culture and are also larger than it.
One is corporate philanthropy, substituting for genuine public health policy, and the other is individual volunteerism, substituting for a real mass social movement that could confront the political-economic powers around environmental pollution and access to health care.
Pinktober masks both of these forces.
In the olden days, a company would make and sell a product and compete with other companies over quality and price. Now everything has become a media/marketing gimmick and corporations brand themselves as if they had souls (they are deemed on a par with citizens by the Supreme Court, so why not?) Consumers have been trained to want to feel “good” about their lifestyle products, and the big corps oblige, providing symbolic content along with the goods and services. (I want to explore in another post why the corps love breast cancer p.r. more than just about any other “cause.”)
Pinktober lends a false media impression that somebody with some clout is doing something huge about breast cancer. It’s not the government, which should be in the business of taking care of its citizens. It’s Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Avon and Revlon. Except that their contributions are a pittance and much of the junk they sell is actually bad for your health. (See Breast Cancer Action’s “Think Before You Pink” campaign.)
Pink consumerism goes hand-in-hand with individual volunteerism. In the absence of a mass social movement, a good cancer survivor can don pink tights and a tu-tu and join with other “positive-thinkers” at a big, fun party to raise money for behemoth organizations that scrupulously avoid the hard issues in Cancerland.
Don’t get me wrong: I applaud the work of on-target organizations including Breast Cancer Action, the Breast Cancer Fund, Metavivor and the informal network of breast cancer social media activists who take on the big corps, the faux charities and the mis-informationists wherever they raise their ugly heads.
One of the things I’m learning from blogging – and I’m in awe of this – is that a phalanx of activist cancer bloggers stand ready to confront every stupid thing that goes on in Cancerland. Last week it was TV’s “Today” show, whose ignorant producers disinvited some guests for a program about host Joan Lunden’s cancer when they learned that these stage 4 women were — against stereotype — not bald!
Breast cancer media activists took on the “Today” show and educated the producers, at least a bit, about stage 4 cancer. That’s real breast cancer awareness.
What if millions of people who have experienced cancer were to form hundreds of grassroots organizations aimed at taking on the environmental polluters, the insurance companies, the politicians who suck on their campaign contributions, and the whole rest of the system that sustains cancer rates at epidemic proportions?
That would be some October.