Unfashionable Diseases and Less Glamorous Cancers

“Cancer charities which work with less glamorous cancers, bowel, lung, pancreatic for example, let alone charities working with distinctly unfashionable diseases…mental health charities and Alzheimers… envy the ease with which consumers spend on pink products, though some cancer charities may welcome the ‘trickle down’ effect.” –comment to The New York Times article Pink Ribbon Fatigue

What is it about breast cancer that is so glamorous? It’s pink. As I write in What’s in a Color? “the cause of breast cancer has been constructed as a moral crusade, a domestic war to be fought by and for women.” The pink ribbon evokes feminine purity and virtue. Unlike diseases that may arise from socially condemned behaviors or lifestyles (i.e., smoking or sex), we see breast cancer as a disease of innocence of —daughters, sisters, mothers, friends, wives, grandmothers—who did nothing to bring the disease upon themselves and who, in fact, may have done everything they could think of to avoid it.

Pink also references a society that equates women with their bodies, and especially their breasts. Gemma Tarlach writes in a Breast Cancer Action Newsletter:

“Nowhere, perhaps aside from Hooters, is this equation more ingrained than in the breast cancer industry, a monolith marketed by corporate America that reinforces stereotypes about what it means to be a woman. Woman = breast = pink.”

Pink cause marketing is rife with examples. T-shirts read: “save the tatas” and “stop the war in my rack;” Men’s versions: “Tatas are awesome;” and, “If loving tatas is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.” Posters say, “Don’t let breast cancer steal second base.” Fundraisers are titled “Bowling for Boobs.” A recent Facebook stunt (with emoticons) says, “Fake, perfect, perky, cold, big, small, and even grandmas. Save them All!!” We’re supposed to pass it around for breast cancer awareness.

Pink is easy to sell. It capitalizes on sexualization and consumption. Jewelry, clothing, cosmetics, perfumes, shoes, accessories, household products, travel, you name it. Especially with the rise of cause marketing, pink ribbon culture sells a pink lifestyle, and one that is no longer limited to women. Men in pink jerseys have also become quite fashionable. And those, “I love boobies” bracelets are especially popular among young men. What’s not popular? Everything else.

An article by Callie Enlow in the San Antonio Current about a specific patient group known as Adolescent/Young Adult, or AYA, represents cancer patients aged 15 to 39. It stresses the point that there are forgotten groups of cancer patients that do not receive the same attention, funding, treatment, support, and advocacy as other groups. The AYA population faces difficult treatment, complicated survivorship issues, and often a lack of insurance. Enlow writes:

“The trick is still convincing the general public to support and advocate for AYA awareness, much like community support boosted breast cancer and pediatric cancer awareness two decades ago.”

As a start, I’m Too Young For This is an organization dedicated to providing resources, information, and support to a “voiceless generation of cancer survivors.”

The success of the pink ribbon in cause marketing and public relations campaigns has created a huge gulf in resources among among different diseases. At the same time, all of the attention, fundraising, and awareness activities for breast cancer have not resulted in a deep understanding of the disease or how to eradicate it. It may be that we need to unite and integrate research and support efforts to a much greater degree. As commenter Mary wrote:

“All cancer patients deserve a lifetime – not just the pink ones or the ones that make American corporations like nice and feel good.”

As it is now 40 percent of women diagnosed with an invasive type of breast cancer still die within 20 years of diagnosis. Who is the ribbon really working for anyway?

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3 comments to Unfashionable Diseases and Less Glamorous Cancers

  • Women with breast cancer support all our brothers and sisters with cancer. We are tired of being used in marketing campaigns, we know everybody is “aware” of breast cancer, and we want research dollars to go towards effective treatments for ALL cancers.

    You can go to my blog to read more.

    http://butdoctorihatepink.blogspot.com/2010/10/keep-pink-lose-breast.html

  • Elais

    If ‘unfashionable’ diseases aren’t getting attention or money, that is not the fault of Komen and other Pink organizations.

    It isn’t a zero sum game where there is a limited pot of money and breast cancer awareness is sucking up all of it to the cost of all other cancers.

    Quit your bitching and work as hard and as visibly as those breast cancer groups! Don’t demand they knock themselves down just to fund YOU.

  • The essay is not suggesting that people should knock down breast cancer organizations. In fact, the website lists community organizations in each state across the country. There are hundreds of organizations working in their local communities to address the needs of the diagnosed as well as national organizations that focus on various dimensions of breast cancer as a broader health concern. Those who are questioning the marketing of breast cancer (which also includes a critique of advertising techniques and stereotypical imagery) tend to recognize that there is a lack of attention to other diseases. Looking at public health as a whole might create useful connections among the diagnosed as well as benefit more people.

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* GAYLE IN THE MEDIA *

"Seeing clearly through the pink haze" Toronto Sun

*Sad face*: Being happy does not help you live longer" New Scientist

How should we address breast cancer when norms continually change? The Guardian

Your Fun 'No Bra Day' Photos Are Overshadowing Terminal Breast Cancer Patients Broadly

Backlash against “pinkwashing” of breast cancer awareness campaigns BMJ

Breast Cancer to Rise 50 Percent by 2030? Hey, Not So Fast! Health News Review

Breast Cancer: The Flaws in the Cause iafrica.com

How to Make the Biggest Impact With Your Breast Cancer Donations Money

The Very Pink, Very Controversial Business of Breast Cancer Awareness Racked

NFL, Pink Ribbons Not Enough to Win over Women CNN

3 Questions We Need to Answer for Breast Cancer Awareness Month Chronicle of Philanthropy

The problem with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month Women's Health Magazine

Pink Ribbon Envy: Living with an Uncool Cancer The Nib

A Year After Bombings, Some Say 'Boston Strong' Has Gone Overboard NPR, All Things Considered

Canadian Mammogram Study KCRW, NPR Affiliate

Time to Debunk the Mammography Myth CNN

Breast Cancer: Awareness, Activism & Pinkwashing NPR Charlotte

Buying Pink Al Jazeera's The Stream Watch »

The Pink Backlash Orlando Sentinel

Why Jolie's Test Costs So Much CNN

Preventative Mastectomies: Disease and Deception BlogTalkRadio

Angelina Jolie and the 'Breast Cancer Gene' KCRW

Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer The New York Times Magazine.

The Story Behind the Pink Ribbon Campaign Sisters Talk Radio

WISH Interview Women's International Summit for Health

Making Cancer About The Patient, Not The Body Part CBS Pittsburgh

Sexy breast cancer campaigns anger many patients USA Today

The perils of pink The Daily

Komen pink campaign creates breast-cancer blues for some Dallas Morning News

A yellow flag for the NFL's pink New York Daily

Gayle Sulik named #7 in SharecareNow’s Top 10 Online Influencers in Breast Cancer

Breast cancer cancer causes so easily derailed Philly Inquirer

Komen Charity Under Microscope for Funding, Science Reuters

The Fight Against Cancer - And Abortion? Salon.com

Susan G. Komen For the Cure defunds Planned Parenthood. In Deep with Angie Coiro

Amid Breast Cancer Month, Is there Pink Fatigue? NPR's All Things Considered

How is Breast Cancer Culture Undermining Women's Health? America’s Radio News Network

Pink Ribbon Culture and Breast Cancer The Kojo Nnamdi Show

The Big Business of Breast Cancer
Marie Claire

Does Breast Cancer Awareness Month Crowd Out Other Diseases? Slate

Pink Inc. Has Many Starting to See Red The Sacramento Bee

Get Your Pink Off Ottawa Citizen

Komen Pink Ribbons Raise Green and Questions USA Today

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