1. The Inspirational Vs. The Actual

Last October, Abigail Zuger MD reviewed Pink Ribbon Blues for The New York Times, Breast Cancer Tales: The Inspirational vs. the Actual. It was a double review that included both my book and Nancy Brinker’s Promise Me. In Zuger’s review, Brinker’s book was the “inspirational” tale and mine was the “actual” one. As a social scientist I was pleased that Pink Ribbon Blues was understood in this way. It is based on extensive data — historical, cultural, narrative, medical, and observational —  gathered and analyzed over many years. It shows how pink ribbon culture and industry work together to create both intended and unintended consequences. Some of those consequences are positive; others are negative. Taken together, the current approach to breast cancer in the United States is getting in the way of progress. Dr. Zuger, an infectious disease specialist, writes:

“It is the social scientists who get to contemplate the full panorama of human reaction to disease by studying the fallout from a single one: all the shades of anguish and anger, the posturing, the politics and the cartloads of wishful thinking, all wrapped up in a big pink ribbon. Less than 50 years ago, breast cancer was hardly discussed in polite company. Now it is the most visible disease around, especially in October, when beribboned pink products flood the market in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (now in its 25th year)…

In Pink Ribbon Blues, Sulik treads an interesting middle ground between the academic and the journalistic… Sulik takes issue with the “she-ro” of the breast cancer movement — an idealized patient who is assertive and boundlessly optimistic, and remains feminine and sexy despite the depredations of disease and treatment…The movement has turned “the shoulds and should nots of survivorship” into a tyranny, Sulik argues, leaving many women with breast cancer as depressed by their failure to be uplifted and transformed as by any other facet of the experience…Meanwhile, the multiplying scientific uncertainties of the disease are often at odds with the consumer movement’s talking points…

Throughout Ms. Sulik’s comprehensive summary of the giant ‘cancer marketplace,’ the names that recur are Susan G. Komen and Nancy G. Brinker, the sisters who made the pink ribbon what it is today…It is no surprise that this consummate strategist [Brinker] has herself produced a memoir [Promise Me] of her career in the breast cancer biz. The surprise is that her book is almost impossible to put down. The woman is clearly breathtakingly good at public relations, both in deed and, with some help from a co-author, in word…”

At this point in the review I had to take a deep breath. I had no idea that Komen founder Nancy Brinker was publishing a book that would be released at the same time as Pink Ribbon Blues. As the face of the contemporary pink ribbon, the Komen organization is clearly important. However, my discussion of Komen is situated within an examination of the entire breast cancer culture and industry. It is an analysis that centers on advocacy, culture, gender, consumption, mass media, the medical industry, survivorship, social support, the experiences of the diagnosed, and the counter pink culture. Within this territory, I analyzed Komen’s place within the breast cancer movement, its role in the commercialization of breast cancer and the branding of the disease, and its emphasis on early detection and awareness — all of which are referenced exhaustively (to the chagrin of some readers).

Importantly, my critique of Komen also concerns a common trend in pink culture, an unquestioning emotional loyalty to the cause that clouds the realities of the disease. I argue in Pink Ribbon Blues that emotional connections have helped to thwart open and systematic inquiry. Brinker’s personal story about the promise she made to her sister thirty years ago has been used strategically to this end. Zuger’s review of Promise Me in The New York Times illustrates this point.

“Two pretty little girls, Suzy and Nanny, live happily in 1950s Illinois with Mommy and Daddy (now in her 60s, Ms. Brinker refers to her parents in just this way). Were they really the iconic postwar American family, or is Ms. Brinker just blowing stardust in our eyes? After a while, immersed in the story, you don’t really care. Suzy Komen is painted in sure, fond strokes as one of those magnetic young women who own every room they enter. At age 34 she finds a breast lump. A surgeon removes it, sews her up, assures her he ‘got it all.’ Three years later she’s dead.

Ms. Brinker details every step she has taken in the intervening years to fulfill her promise to the dying Suzy to ‘make things better.’ The book wanders through personal setbacks (like her own mastectomy for early-stage cancer) and corporate triumphs (like ‘Pinking the Pyramids’ with Egypt’s first breast cancer race). She also tells the stories of many breast cancer she-ros, most of them young and very heroic.

At the end comes a scene of cinematic impact: Ms. Brinker takes Ms. Komen’s two young granddaughters to tea at (where else?) the American Girl store in Manhattan, and tells Suzy’s little namesake to ‘take care of your sister.’

There isn’t a dry eye in the house.”

Nancy Brinker’s promise to her sister, Susan G. Komen, has been told and marketed repeatedly. The story is touching, and it was the impetus for Nancy Brinker’s life’s work with the foundation she started in her sister’s name. However, the mission to eradicate breast cancer is more complicated than a singular perspective. Breast cancer is a complex and systemic social problem, and the approach to breast cancer is, and has been, highly contested. Unfortunately, the tug-of-war between the emotional connection to the cause and the willingness to set feelings aside momentarily to consider the value of multiple viewpoints, including those of dissent, stands in the way of critically evaluating how we can do better.

Inspiration is a good thing. But actually, it’s time to get real!


For more consciousness raising essays, check out “30 Days of Breast Cancer Awareness.”



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4 comments to 1. The Inspirational Vs. The Actual

  • Congratulations, Gayle, for being reviewed so accurately and being so well-received. As someone who has read your book, I felt it thorough and enlightening. You made me think of the breast cancer industry in a whole new way.

    I think the general public wants to believe in Brinker’s “story,” but I think people are also ready to hear the truth.

    Thanks for always speaking the truth.

  • There is no question Nancy Brinker and the Komen machine are very good at what they do. The release of her memoir proves this once again. Doing so was a very strategic move, providing yet another effective tool for tapping into the emotions of all those who read it. I can’t help but question the true motives behind its release. As you said, inspiration is a good thing, but “actually, it’s time to get real.” I’d say it’s way past time!

  • And as we know now, Brinker’s release of the Promise Me memoir was even more strategic than simply telling the emotional story of how Komen came to be. It’s also selling a load of pinkwashed perfume of the same name, with more lines to follow I’m sure under the Komen Beauty brand owned by TPR Holdings. Mmm somehow the innocence and melodrama of it all is now completely lost on me. What a difference a year makes.

  • Wow – I can’t imagine your shock to see both books reviewed together!

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

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NFL, Pink Ribbons Not Enough to Win over Women CNN

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Buying Pink Al Jazeera's The Stream Watch »

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

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The Fight Against Cancer - And Abortion? Salon.com

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

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Marie Claire

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