What follows is an excerpt from the foreword to Pink Ribbon Blues, written by Bonnie B. Spanier, Ph.D., Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Emerita, Women’s Studies Department, University at Albany.
The grassroots breast cancer movement of twenty-plus years has been a force for progress for consumers interfacing with medicine. Over the years, much has changed in breast cancer biomedicine as well. Many of these changes have come from medical professionals and researchers who put the quality of life for women at the center of their concerns. The women’s health movement that came to the public eye around 1970 with the publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves, for example, has played a crucial role in pushing the medical profession, government regulators, and researchers into treating women as active agents and potential experts of our own bodies. Much of the particular change in biomedicine came from obstreperous women, like Rose Kushner, insisting on being heard by their doctors and politicians, in the National Institutes of Health and in Congress.
By 1990, frustrated women raised their voices, opened their purses, and organized to get the attention of the public and of politicians in order to highlight shortfalls in progress against breast cancer. Despite reassurances from most quarters of the medical profession, women faced the harsh reality that mortality rates had not improved in 50 years. The breast cancer advocacy movement became a revolution to increase funding for innovative research; to question standard medical advice so that the public could learn about the complexities of the disease, including its known and suspected causes; to address the conditions of survivors’ lives; and to dream of eliminating the disease for future generations.
We have much to learn from this extraordinary era and the many engaged citizens working to improve our health. Yet it is discouraging that, decades later, the same issues remain: Why are so many women living with, suffering from, and dying from breast cancer? What are the best ways to detect, treat, live with, and prevent this disease? Whose information is most reliable? What role, if any, should corporations play in disseminating medical information, encouraging particular modes of detection or treatment, or fund-raising for large breast cancer organizations? How do everyday messages about women and breast cancer survivorship help or diminish support for the diagnosed, or for those who are at risk? Whose voices are missing from the public debate? Where is the debate headed, and will it have any impact on the eradication of the disease?
Because we still cannot answer these challenging questions to our satisfaction, it is time to look at the problem with fresh insights. In order to increase our chances for improving quality of life, we must take stock of where we have been and where we are headed, re-evaluating the current culture and its powerful beliefs about what is best for women’s health.
Gayle Sulik’s thoughtful and provocative book gives us that opportunity. Her approach focuses us on the nexus of critical issues in women’s and men’s health, personal decision-making, and public policy. To understand the strengths and the limitations of the “pink ribbon culture” of breast cancer, Sulik looks at this complex cultural system it in its entirety, with its own language, norms, practices, and beliefs. She considers the history, the key players, the most prevalent messages, the key funders, and the most crucial outcomes of America’s war on breast cancer. She listens to the words and stories of women who have breast cancer, the people who care about them, and those who are involved with breast cancer advocacy and education. She examines the advertising tableau and the imagery associated with pink culture. Then she carefully documents and analyzes the impact of this culture on the lives of women living with a breast cancer diagnosis. Finally, Sulik offers understanding about why pink ribbon culture has avoided public critique, and how society and advocacy together can regain crucial ground.