Komen’s Leadership In Question

Photo by Astrid Stawiarz for The Wall Street Journal

The fury over Komen’s official responses to the trademark debacle continues to mount as individuals, breast cancer advocates, journalists, bloggers, and the diagnosed raise numerous questions about Komen’s trademark policing, hubris, and financial allocations. Despite an ambiguous admission on the Nightly News with Brian Williams that Komen may have been “overzealous” in its trademark protection and that the organization is “not perfect,” Komen maintains its official response that it sees trademark protection as “responsible stewardship” of donor funds.

For many, the Komen trademark feuds have been a touchstone for larger concerns about the commercialization of breast cancer, the festive environment surrounding the cause, the incremental advancements in modern medicine that make ‘cure’ an elusive term, the need for basic scientific research and increased attention to causation and primary prevention, and the dominion of one organization within a broad and diverse breast cancer movement. The need to “cure” more ills than breast cancer. This is not to say that the Komen organization hasn’t done some good.

As part of the broader breast cancer movement, Komen helped to increase attention to breast cancer as a women’s health issue, bring people together in the name of the cause, and de-stigmatize survivorship. Komen was especially successful in garnering the attention of large donors who could have been spending their charitable dollars elsewhere. The organization used part of that money (21 to 25 percent over the years) to fund research projects. The rest went to awareness related educational programs, screening, treatment, and advocacy. Some of this work has been especially useful in garnering political and economic clout in the public health arena.

In addition to holding the public and corporate spotlight, breast cancer holds a prominent position in the legislative agenda. Since 1993 Congress introduced more than 150 bills related directly to “breast cancer”, and about 600 bills related to “cancer” overall, including some associated with breast cancer. The breast cancer bills enacted were varied, including: the designation of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month; establishment of a breast cancer postage stamp; funding for the Department of Defense Peer-Reviewed Breast Cancer Research Program; adjustment of mammography standards; funding of research into new applications of imaging technology from missile systems for breast cancer detection; and, illumination of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis honoring awareness month. Many of the bills introduced or enacted were in response to pressure from advocacy groups, including Komen, and represent a fundamental commitment on the part of the federal government to prioritize breast cancer as a public health concern.

However, the commercial and market-based logic of the Komen organization in particular has deep roots that, over the years, contributed to a major shift in pink ribbon culture. As Komen prioritized corporate partnerships and pink publicity, it started to undermine the successes of the broader breast cancer movement. Structures were lighted in pink in the name of awareness without a deep understanding of the complicated realities of prevention, risk, and treatment. Ties with the medical industry biased neutrality when evaluating scientific controversies. A charitable public was transformed into a viable consumer base. Partnerships became more commonplace with companies that may contribute to environmental degradation, broader health problems, and/or the growing cancer burden. Research dollars were the rallying call but failed to comprise the bulk of organizational program allocations. [For more details on these issues see Look Out for Pinktober.]

By the time Komen rebranded itself in 2007 with a name change and new logo, it was already operating more as a corporate entity than a charitable one. In turn, the more than 1300 breast cancer organizations that comprise the breast cancer movement struggle to keep their budgets, provide for their communities, fill gaps in care, and influence the direction of breast cancer policy and research. For some of them, Komen’s trademark policing threatens their very existence. In the midst of these concerns, when the Komen organization promised to develop a plan to alleviate trademark tensions and find a way for groups to work toward the same goal of a cure, the organization goes on with business as usual.

On January 28th the Young Professionals Committee of the Greater New York City affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure gathered 250 friends to “raise awareness” for breast cancer by “Painting Wall Street Pink.” According to The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 29, 2011),

Photo by Astrid Stawiarz for The Wall Street Journal

“The evening’s festivities had two parts in two locations. The first took place on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, where guests enjoyed cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, and had their photos taken on the bell platform. With over a hundred video and computer screens, as well as information streaming along ticker tapes, it wasn’t an easy room to pinkify, but this was, in fact, part of the Komen strategy, according to founder Nancy Brinker, to ‘deliver conventional messages in unconventional ways in unexpected environments.'”

Though it is unclear exactly how “pinkification” supports Komen’s mission to end breast cancer forever, there is nothing unexpected or unconventional about any of this. Pink paraphernalia, simple awareness messages, fun-loving celebration, and loads of money spent in the name of breast cancer are commonplace. The cause has even become quite sexy. The Wall Street Journal titled its article “Making Wall Street Blush,” which seemed to fall in line with the thoughts of at least some of the men in attendance. Broker Steve Simmons, who is also the executive committee’s treasurer, recruited men to the event with the lure of meeting women. He was quoted to say, “I don’t mind being a pimp to cure a disease.”

It’s interesting how casually two words that seemingly have nothing in common – ‘cure’ and ‘pimp’ – roll off the tongue. There is no cure on the near horizon for breast cancer. Mr. Simmons would not be responsible for it if there were. Likening himself to someone who procures customers for sex workers and then takes a share of their money sounds less than charitable. Sexual innuendo in the name of the cause and the cure abound. Feel your boobies; keep ’em hooterific; save second base. Sexy and diminutive catch phrases and imagery use sex to sell the cause and a muted version of awareness. Nancy Brinker’s 35-year-old son Eric added to the scenario when he told the crowd on Wall Street that he was “popular” growing up because there was always a breast mold to practice inspecting for lumps at his house. Sexualizing women in the name of the cause, regardless of whether it raises money, trivializes the realities of the disease.

The Komen organization has played, and continues to play, a vital role in bringing attention to the cause of breast cancer. It has also played a key role in commercializing breast cancer in the name of Susan G. Komen, whose legacy is now potentially tarnished with false promises, sexual innuendo, and the exploitation of the public’s good intentions. I know this is not the goal of the Komen organization. It is, however, a consequence of their organizational conduct. As a result, some individuals and organizations have officially given up hope. Not personal hope, individually defined and contextualized within the framework of their lives, goals, and commitments. But hope in the Komen organization to be the kind of leader that is ethical, responsive, and attentive to the complicated realities of breast cancer and the people who are living with this disease.

Breast cancer is not a party. Unless this realization becomes a vital aspect of breast cancer advocacy, it is doubtful that any hope will be restored. Then again, maybe hope isn’t what we need.

Post Script: This essay was edited since the publication of its original draft.

See Also:

“Think About Pink”, NY Times Magazine

Cure for Cancer Stalls, AOL’s Wallet Pop

Look Out for Pinktober

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2 comments to Komen’s Leadership In Question

  • I’m glad the men enjoyed meeting women at the pink party. Too bad some of them are statistically slated to die of breast cancer with no hope for a cure in sight. Pink parties and 25% or less to research just isn’t going to cut it. As the pinkifications get bigger and more grandiose, so does the disconnect between Komen and the very people it’s meant to be helping.

  • […] Komen: Please Leave Me Alone Ko-Mart.Org Is There A Cure for Hypocrisy? The Scent of Exploitation Komen By The Numbers Komen Sells Out Lawsuits for the Cure Komen’s Wild Ride, one of the best ‘grumblings’ ever written, in my opinion. Raise A Stink! The Cure for Pink (contains the infamous Promise Me HSN video) Komen’s Leadership in Question […]

"women urged to get screened because it might save their lives. But that’s only 1 possible outcome, and it’s the least likely one" @cragcrest cutt.ly/jei8WJr

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