People usually ask me why I became interested in breast cancer and pink ribbon culture. The answer is: It’s personal. I have never been diagnosed with breast cancer. Like many who are devoted to the cause, my commitment stems from the loss of someone close to me. In witnessing the life and death of a good friend, I have come to know deeply what is at stake in the war on breast cancer.
My friend was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer at age 30, got treatment and was cancer free for a few years, had a breast cancer recurrence at age 35, got more treatment, and then died soon after her 40th birthday. Our last visit together was a few days before she died. While I hesitate to share the full details of this day, I feel compelled to let you know some of the important things that came out of it.
Most importantly, I understand that lives are at stake. The war on cancer has been raging for forty years, and has increased in intensity in the last twenty. Incidence rates remain high, and some forty thousand women and hundreds of men die from the disease each year. Whereas about 25 percent of diagnosed women are diagnosed with one of the in situ (i.e., “in place”) types of breast cancer that are not life threatening, the remaining 75 percent are diagnosed with one of the invasive types that are. Not only do the invasive types have the capacity to spread, they seem to do so in about one third of all cases. There is no way to tell with any certitude which of the diagnosed will fall into this category. Though there have been some important advances in what we know about breast cancer and how to treat it, the questions and the casualties continue to mount.
People handle grief and loss differently, but it is common to want to do something to honor the life that was lost. When my friend was on her deathbed, I told her about a 3-day breast cancer walk I wanted to do in her honor. She nodded and went back to sleep. After she died, I felt foolish that I had made such a statement. Walking in her memory would do nothing for her. She was gone. I realized that walking was more about me. Then, I realized that there were other things I could do besides walk. I was a researcher. I could devote my research to learning more about the disease, the cause, the culture, the medicine, and the support systems in place for the diagnosed. So that’s what I did.
Pink Ribbon Blues is the culmination of many years of research, starting in 2001. It was a bigger project than I could have imagined, and it involved many more elements of society than I had anticipated. The more I learned about the interconnections among advocacy, organizations, culture, policy, mass media, consumption, industry, and modes of survivorship, the more I realized that pink ribbon culture had taken on a life of its own. As a system, it no longer served a greater intention. It served itself.
Despite the effort of millions who run, walk, hike, bike, and raise money for the cure the eradication of breast cancer has become a figment of our collective imagination. When I think about my friend and the others I have lost to this disease throughout my lifetime, I regret that pink ribbon culture has gone so far astray. For those who continually worry about recurrence, face decisions about prophylactic treatments, lack adequate care and support, rely on inadequate screening technologies, suffer the ongoing side effects of treatments, do not have access to the most successful cancer centers, do not experience the transcendence that pink culture demands, are not represented in the culture, and who fear for the future of a cancer ridden society, I implore everyone to take a step back to look honestly at the system’s outcomes, and to recalibrate. After all, we want the same thing. We want to be healthy, free, and with the people we love.
My ongoing work is dedicated to all of those who are suffering from breast cancer, and all of those who want to do something about it.