La Maladie en Rose

My mom died of breast cancer when I was fifteen and my sister was nine.  She had it for about seven years, and despite seemingly endless chemo and radiation, the cancer metastasized throughout her whole body and killed her.  This is not something many people know about my life — it takes me a while to tell even my closest friends. When I do, I hate the way people struggle to find a way to react, which then makes me feel guilty for saying it at all. I hate the hasty apology and look of pity in their eyes. You can see them wishing they hadn’t asked me about it. I hate to lie back (almost in an effort to comfort them), “Thank you, it sucks but it’s okay”. I hate to bring up my family too much for fear that it comes up. I hate to write about it even now, but I feel compelled to because “Breast Cancer Awareness” Month just passed.

I received a listserv email from SSMU inviting me to a “Think Pink Potluck”, promising  “amazing drinks and desserts” and even  “a breast cancer survivor guest ”– what a party! Every year,  “Breast Cancer Awareness Month” rolls around and I wonder, “Who isn’t aware of breast cancer by now?” Of course it’s useful to be “aware” of the effects of breast cancer, to donate to the cause, and to recognize the people who have gone through it or are still living with it every day. The way in which, however, the pink ribbon has become the recognizable symbol of breast cancer is problematic and harmful.  

I know what you’re thinking: you’ve already heard this, you know the pink ribbon doesn’t do much, but what’s the big deal? What’s wrong with showing some comradery? With expressing optimism? With organizing or participating in “Race for the Cure” events? They aren’t doing much in the way of finding an actual cure, but they aren’t harming anyone. Besides, at least they’re getting people to donate money, right?

Cancer is harrowing — it’s ugly, it’s messy, it’s unknowable, it’s persistent, it’s scary, it’s dark, and it’s violent. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Pink Ribbon Fund offers a neat, easy-to-manage, simple, and pink solution to this. Actually, it’s shade 150 Pink, to be exact. The VP of public relations for Offray described it as a “pretty, pastel pink without being too washed-out or powdery-looking.”

Why is “pinkwashing” an issue? If it raises tons of money (and it does), who cares if a bit of the profit goes into the pockets of corporations rather than to developing research to improve treatment?

In 2010, Dansko shoe company sold pink ribbon clogs. Consumers likely thought that a portion of their purchase of pink ribbon clogs went to a breast cancer treatment research program. However, purchase of the pink ribbon clogs was not connected to Dansko’s donation—none of the profit from the sales went toward their already set donation of $25,000 to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The amount donated to the cause wasn’t affected by the popularity of the clogs at all.

Reebok marketed a line of pink ribbon emblazoned footwear and apparel at prices ranging from $50 to $100. Though it heavily promoted the fact that some of their pink ribbon product sales would be donated to the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, they set a limit of $750,000. Again we see the pattern: regardless of how many items were sold, the donation remained the same. There was no mechanism in place to alert consumers once the maximum donation had been met, thus rendering their purchases useless in supporting the cause.

Susan G. Komen has commissioned a Perfume, “Promise me”, that contains a number of suspect chemicals not listed in the ingredients, according to analysis by Breast Cancer Action. Only $1.51, or 3 percent, of each $59 sale will actually go toward furthering breast cancer research.

The list goes on. Most, if not all, corporate “pinkwashing” is misleading and ambiguous. What’s worse, many industries use breast-cancer philanthropy to “pinkwash” their reputation, necessary because of the toxic and sometimes carcinogenic nature of their products. Companies of all kinds are guilty of it: “car companies that cause pollution, chemical companies that produce pesticides, cosmetics companies that use carcinogenic ingredients, even KFC, which sold fried chicken in pink buckets – all engage in philanthropy to advertise their brands as woman-positive.” The pink ribbon is a red herring, and the 40,000 women dying from breast cancer each year cannot afford a distraction that does not produce real, productive research.

Aside from recognizing the blatant commodification of a disease, there was something else I came to realize about pink ribbon mentality. Six years after my mom’s death, when I got that email about the Pink Potluck, I thought to myself, “Why do I still feel so much guilt stemming from her death? Why am I afraid to tell people about it?” It’s because she didn’t survive. There’s nothing to say because she didn’t “win” the “fight”. She didn’t “beat” it, she died. Did my mom “fail” because she died? What’s with all this military-type rhetoric surrounding an unpredictable, volatile, and ruthless disease? This mentality makes me reminiscent of when Donald Trump attacked John McCain’s status as a war hero because he was “captured”, as though imprisonment by enemy forces meant he couldn’t possibly have served his country or deserved recognition for it.

The reason that email aggravated me is because it made me recognize that the pink ribbon and the mainstream view of breast cancer it represents is exclusive to the positive side of the disease — to the optimism that surrounds fundraising for a cure. It ignores the side of cancer that is nearly impossible to face, the one that thousands of people are forced to confront every moment of their existence. “The term survivor suggests to the world —wrongly— that breast cancer is curable… no one who has been diagnosed with invasive breast cancer can ever say truthfully that the cancer will not recur.” By celebrating survivorship, we imply that we have been successful in fighting the collective breast cancer battle, which is unfortunately very far from the truth. It also adds pressure and anxiety to the lives of women still facing the disease by constructing a “misery quotient(feeling like you don’t have the right to be as miserable as someone else): Did I suffer enough to be called a survivor? Did others suffer more than me?

There is always a place for optimism. I am not offering or advocating for a doomed outlook on the situation, but rather for a realistic one. Pink ribbon mentality is not actually an optimistic position — it is a financial transaction that incorporates one very particular, singular narrative of breast cancer. The only way to improve this is to support groups who don’t glamorize the disease, as well as groups that don’t stamp a pink ribbon on products that are actively causing cancer.  Most importantly, however, we must support groups who don’t discount the full range of experiences lived by breast cancer patients and their loved ones.

After more than thirty years of “awareness” campaigns and billions of dollars spent on pink ribbon products,  women are still facing breast cancer. This is a crucial fact to remember when you’re shopping – even a casual purchase (because it’s cheaper or it’s the specific brand you want) of a product with a pink ribbon on it perpetuates the ribbon’s existence as a positive symbol. These products are bought because it is easy, clean, and normalized — the buyer can feel some sort of gratification from it. We need to demand more than pinkness. Although some people do derive support from pink ribbon events and communities, many whose lives have been touched by breast cancer in any way feel excluded and misrepresented. I know I do.

If you are looking for a starting point for research on this issue, take a look at: