With the end of October, and therefore Breast Cancer Awareness month, fast approaching, I’ve been thinking long and hard about breast cancer. Not about the disease, specifically, but rather the phenomenon of breast cancer awareness, which, every October, sees every product from makeup to yogurt, running shoes to Barbie pinkified (well, in Barbie’s case, made pinker) and beribboned to encourage people to jump through hoops to donate pennies to breast cancer research. Yes, breast cancer is terrible, and yes, it touches so many women. Yet I find myself recoiling from the commercialization of a disease, especially when so little money actually goes to the research itself.
First, I want to draw attention to the other three cancers in the top four affecting women- lung, colon, and gynecologic. And I want to ask a question- do you know what the ribbon colors are for those cancers? Wild guess, but I’m imagining you don’t. Colon cancer is blue, for example, and its month is March. I had to look that up. January is cervical, uteral and ovarian cancer awareness month and the color is teal. Lung cancer is pearl (pearl??) and isn’t listed on most ribbon awareness sites, despite being the second most common cancer for women and the highest killer- November is the month for awareness, and yet I will bet $10 you won’t see pearl ribboned bottled water in the grocery store. Ignoring for a moment that heart disease is by far more risky for women’s health, why is it that breast cancer is so prominent when lung cancer actively kills more women?
My friend Laurie Penny, over at the New Statesman, says it best, I think. “Buy these pink pants and you, too, can stand up to cancer — sexy, flirty, naughty cancer, she says, continuing, “many breast cancer patients and survivors and family members of sufferers have begun to take a stand against demeaning campaigns what seem to infer that breast cancer is serious not because it kills women, but because it threatens our uninterrupted enjoyment of lovely, bouncy, sexy boobies. And it’s pretty hard to argue with that when campaigns like “Save the Tatas and “I love boobies are considered hip and fun while using childish words to “promote awareness. Never mind the fact that checking your breasts for breast cancer has led to an apparently acceptable objectifying male response, like the frankly rather creepy “Check Your Breasts (or I will) or “Don’t let breast cancer steal second base tee shirts. Or maybe this is just another thing where I don’t get the joke.
But this leads to another area of concern for me around this process known as pinkwashing. It completely ignores men who have breast cancer, which, if the intent is to promote cancer awareness, seems backwards. As pink is a “girl color and many of the products are marketed towards women, along with women being the exclusive face of breast cancer awareness, it makes breast cancer a female issue (well, unless you want to be the guy that goes around grabbing breasts and saying “no, it’s cool, I’m checking for breast cancer! Hnar hnar. Shouldn’t we be telling men that they should be checking for lumps on themselves, too? Or would that not be as sexy, somehow?
And then, never mind the fact that some of the products proudly waving the pink flag actually have been known to increase the risk of cancer. Makeup companies are at the top of the list- Estee Lauder, for example, uses carcinogens and other harmful chemicals in their makeup, as do Avon and Revlon. All three have pink ribbon campaigns. Or alcohol, which can raise your risk of cancer– possibly more significantly than you realize. And yet companies like Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Chambord both have pink ribbon campaigns- and, more to the point, have relationships with people like the Breast Cancer Network of Strength. Seems a bit off to me.
What really, really pisses me off though is that the Komen Foundation seem to have lost their minds (and an idea of what charity means). They’ve decided that the color pink and the phrase “for the cure BELONGS TO THEM, and are bullying other charities for using either, especially together. Why? Because brand confusion can cost them donations. Wait a second- when did breast cancer become corrupted into a brand? And why would anyone pit charities against each other over a phrase or a color? And finally- is this really a responsible use of the money you’re raising to fight breast cancer?
And finally, the last little bit of annoyance comes about because, let’s face it, breast cancer is seen as a sinless cancer. I’m just throwing out my own prejudices here, granted, but I highly suspect the reason lung cancer and, say, cervical cancer don’t get much time in the spotlight is because the belief is those are avoidable cancers. My grandmother told me the story of how a friend of hers struggled to get donations and assistance when she suffered from lung cancer because people assumed she must have been a smoker, or lived with someone who was. In fact, she was a schoolteacher in the suburbs and had never touched a cigarette in her life- but any time she told someone she had lung cancer, the person would always ask, knowingly, “ah, did you used to be a smoker? Like it was her fault.
Or let’s look at cervical cancer for a second. Now cervical cancer is close to my heart, personally, because I had precancerous cells scraped off my cervix more than once. And yet I consistently tested negative for any sort of HPV, the most common cause of cervical cancer. I discovered that quitting hormonal birth control stopped my abnormal pap smears entirely- whether that’s linked or not, I don’t know, but I get tested every 3 months and so far so good. But I only ever saw posters advising my to get a pap smear to see if I was at risk when I was already in the clinic getting tested. I certainly never saw a teal ribbon or a tee shirt making cervical cancer sexy. Now, HPV affects about 80% of the population, and use of condoms doesn’t prevent infection. That seems like a crisis in the making to me. And yet it is so hard to get tested for HPV, even though 10% of those with it will develop cervical cancer.
I hypothesize these two examples are what I’d call “sin cancers. While breast cancer is affected by what you ingest, there’s no activity you can engage in that specifically is linked to the cancer. Lung cancer is linked to smoking. Cervical cancer is linked to having sex. Therefore, these are cancers you may get only if you’ve been “bad, and therefore, socially, you are considered suspiciously and potentially at fault. This is ridiculous, granted, but I do find it interesting that some cancers seem to be more “innocent than others.. and more deserving of awareness campaigns and support, despite the fact that if that holds true, “sin cancers are preventable from the start, and therefore in dire need of these kinds of campaigns.
I find the whole thing really frustrating and distracting from the real point of awareness. Not consumerism. Not brand identity. But making people more aware of their own health and helping them to engage in prevention before the fact. To help women with breast cancer, I’m going to do my research and put my money where it matters- straight into the hands of people who will use 100% towards the cause.
In the meantime, I think I’ll check my boyfriend’s breasts for cancer next time we do some nipple play. And maybe I should warn the Komen Foundation what a light pink hanky means, just in case they really do think they have a monopoly on the color pink. After all, it’s hot pink that’s for tit torture.