Memo to the “Hippest Town in NJ:” Please Stop Painting Yourself Pink

Peggy Orenstein is the author, most recently, of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. Her previous books include The New York Times best-selling memoir,Waiting for Daisy; Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Kids, Love and Life in a Half-Changed World;and the best-selling SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap. A contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, Peggy has also written for such publications as The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Vogue, Elle, Discover, More, Mother Jones, Salon, O: The Oprah Magazine, and The New Yorker, and has contributed commentaries to NPR’s All Things Considered. Her articles have been anthologized multiple times, including in The Best American Science Writing. She has been a keynote speaker at numerous colleges and conferences and has been featured on, among other programs, Nightline, Good Morning America, The Today Show, NPR’s Fresh Air and Morning Edition and CBC’s As It Happens.

With permission, Pink Ribbon Blues republishes Peggy Orenstein’s essay “Memo to the “Hippest Town in NJ:” Please Stop Painting Yourself Pink” – originally published on her blog.

Over the past couple of months, I tried to get a number of editors to bite on this story: the town of Redbank, NJ (which calls itself “hippest town in NJ” thereby, ipso facto, making it not) has painted itself pink “to raise awareness of the importance of breast cancer prevention, detection, and treatment.” I wanted to take apart the whole premise, possibly doing an annotated “memo” of its press release a la Harper’s. Couldn’t get anyone to go for it.

I was reminded of the concept again today by Anthony Moro, husband of Rachel Cheetham Moro, the  author of The Cancer Culture Chronicles blog (and inspiration to activists everywhere) who died earlier this year of breast cancer.  Rachel died in the hospital sponsoring this event. And she would have hated. it. As Anthony writes on the blog, “painting the town pink”:

…doesn’t help prevent death from breast cancer. More mammograms don’t lower mortality, awareness doesn’t cure disease. Mammograms and awareness certainly don’t help anybody dealing with advanced disease. Mammograms and awareness don’t provide any comfort from my grief, and their pink flags mock me daily.  This stuff is in my face every day, and now it has a gala reception and celebrity appearances.

He is absolutely right. I have written this and written this over and over. Those of you interested in more effective breast cancer advocacy might want to check out Breast Cancer Action or the National Breast Cancer Coalition. Meanwhile, for the record, below is my hall-of-shame annotation of the Redbank press release. [And here is Rachel’s post on last year’s “Paint the Town Pink.”]

Hi there –

I know you don’t traditionally cover local NJ stories, but this is something truly newsworthy to a nationwide audience, and any help in spreading the message would be much appreciated. Paint the Town Pink is a community-wide effort presented by Riverview Medical Center in Red Bank, NJ to raise awareness of the importance of breast cancer prevention, detection, and treatment.

They say they are raising “awareness.” Of what? Well, number one, they say of how to prevent breast cancer. If they know how to do that, give them the Nobel Prize immediately: there is no scientifically proven way to prevent breast cancer. There are some things that may reduce risk—such as limiting alcohol consumption, avoiding hormone replacement—but prevention? Nope. They seem to be making the common (and detrimental)  mistake of indicating that mammography prevents cancer. It doesn’t. It detects cancer.

Red Bank, in Monmouth County NJ, is regarded by many as “the hippest town in NJ.”

Said it before: calling yourself “hip” makes you ipso facto not.

Downtown Red Bank is situated along the banks of the Navesink River where numerous rock stars and movie stars have made their home.

Perhaps some of those hip movie and rock stars will become “aware” of how they’re being used to spend misinformation about breast cancer and do something that actually makes a difference in the fight against the disease.

Six years ago, Riverview Medical Center set forth on a breast health crusade, directed at encouraging women, aged 40 and over, to have their annual mammogram,

The necessity and efficacy of annual mammograms for women 40-49 is highly controversial and does not appear to confer any life-saving benefit. In  2009, the United States Preventive Services Task Force  found that the risks of mammography outweighed the benefits for that age group its guidelines suggest that women in that age group who are of average or low risk discuss the value of their test with their physician. The unquestioning encouragement by Paint the Town Pink, however, would result in big profits for the hospital involved….

as well as to raise money to provide mammography to the uninsured and underserved in the community.

Okay, that’s nice, but more on this later.

 In conjunction with the Women’s Center at Riverview, the mission behind the Paint the Town Pink campaign was to educate women about a very significant fact: that early detection is a woman’s best defense against breast cancer.

Stop. Right. There. Early detection a “defense” against cancer? “Defense,” again, implies that it prevents the disease. At best mammography detects breast cancer (and it misses tumors in up to 20% of cases). No responsible authority would say the test prevents it.

But perhaps they mean that early detection is your best defense against dyingof breast cancer? Well….maybe. Here’s what’s important to understand (and what I keep harping on in my articles): You have to look at the kind of cancer mammography catches as well its impact on that cancer. Mammography is very good at finding early stage cancers called Ductal Carcainoma in Situwhich would only become invasive (hence life-threatening) 30% of the time. Yet since medical science does not yet know which DCIS cancer will become invasive all are equally aggressively treated. That means 70% of women with this sort of cancer did not need the disfiguring surgery or radiation they underwent. Nonetheless, pink ribbon advocates count these women as success stories—“survivors” of a cancer that would never have killed them.

The second kind of cancer mammography catches is the one we hope for: the kind that, if caught early, can be successfully treated. For this segment, mammography does indeed save lives. Yay mammography!

The third kind of cancer is the most aggressive. No matter how “early” it’s caught by mammography it is too late. Mammography has had no impact on the death rates from this form of cancer, which is why the actual number of women (and men) who die of cancer today—about 40,000 annually, including Rachel Cheetham Morro—is greater than it was in the 1980s. While the overall death rates  as a percentage of those diagnosed has dropped (again in part because of mammography’s penchant for finding DCIS) The death rate for those with metastatic disease, the kind that will kill you, has not budged.

What started off as just one town (Red Bank), grew into three towns for 2011. For 2012, the number of towns has grown to NINE – making the 2012 event the most represented in the campaign’s history!

How nice: 9 towns now spread misinformation.

Many businesses throughout Monmouth County turn their towns into a vision of pink in May. They are enthusiastic about breast cancer education and gathering donations to help women who do not have insurance, or are under-insured. As a member of the Pink community, we have a unique opportunity to integrate this educational message into a woman’s daily routine as she shops and dines at the many businesses in these towns.

Swathing the town in pink and promoting mammography may not do much for women with cancer, but it’s a great way to boost profits for local businesses and make people feel good.

From high-end boutiques offering a “pink tag sale” on Jimmy Choo shoes, to restaurants offering drink specials and “pink menus,” to the Broadway Diner with a hand painted mural about mammography, these towns has embraced the event. We also strive to make the educational process fun through various events. Planned once again for this year is a community-wide kick-off event on May 5th called “Paint Everything PinkThis event draws more than 3,500 community members for a day of education and fun.

The growth of Paint the Town Pink into neighboring towns, the footprint extended in these communities, the expanding volunteer base, the compelling educational messages, the inspirational stories shared…

Pink campaigns tend to focus on what Gayle Sulik, author of Pink Ribbon Blues, calls the “she-roes” narrative: stories of warriors in heels who kick cancer’s butt (and look fab doing it). She-roes say what people want to hear: that not only have they survived cancer but the disease has made them better people and better women. It almost goes without saying that they do not contract late-stage disease, nor do they die.

…the creation of the Pink Fund…

The Pink Fund? What does it do?

and the desire by people to be part of something authentic, tangible, and meaningful takes Paint the Town Pink beyond the pink.

People really do want to be involved in something tangible and meaningful. It’s too bad this campaign does not fit that criteria.

Beyond the visually pink landscape, Paint the Town Pink has brought families together, neighbors together, and businesses and communities together, while organically spreading a very important message. After five successful years of Paint the Town Pink activities, funding is now available to cover 250 free mammograms in 2012!

What happens if one of those mammograms finds an abnormality or, God forbid, cancer? Those women will need follow-up procedures, possibly surgery, possibly radiation or chemotherapy or more. If they are uninsured or under-insured who will pay for that care? Free mammograms are nice, but thenwhat?

We Need Your Help!

You can help us remind women of the importance of their annual mammogram in a fun and positive way! The idea is truly scalable and customizable. Ideas range from “pale pink” to “fuchsia” in scale.  Here are some examples:

  • Dress a member of your media team in pink in support of our campaign
  • Broadcast the logo in pink
  • Develop medical features about the prevention, detection, and new treatments for breast cancer, and how just because Breast Cancer Awareness Month is not until October, it should not be forgotten about the other 11 months of the year

I agree. Breast cancer is an issue all year long. But extending the dissemination of misinformation and profit-making should not be.

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5 comments to Memo to the “Hippest Town in NJ:” Please Stop Painting Yourself Pink

  • Powerful posting! Peggy got it all right. What this town is doing is sickening.

  • Lisa Valentine

    Right on Peggy! And by all means, please keep writing on! Thanks for your witty and insightful words to contribute to the growing discussion of what the breast cancer movement needs. (And it isn’t more pink!)
    All breast cancers are not the same…let’s get research dollars in to curing advanced disease and deter-mining which DCIS is the kind to worry about and which isn’t. The plethora of pink is not saving more lives,it is distracting. We can’t afford such distractions when there is real work to be done.

  • A fantastic rhetorical deconstruction! And a powerful message that I wish more people would open their ears to. Thank you, Peggy!

  • Great post, Peggy. This pinkwashing really must stop. “She-roes” are shams that really should be labeled “She-woes.” Their hypocrisy is more than evident to all of us who’ve been punched by cancer. Thanks to Gayle for republishing your piece. I hope it gets widely disseminated to counter the pink voices that seem to be everywhere. xx

  • No matter how many of us say the things said above, the powerful message of pink marketing triumphs. Why? Because there is money in it. Every person who buys a pink drink, or a Jimmy Choo shoe on sale is perpetuating these lies. As long as money is to be made, this will continue. The truth is not important, making money is. Nobody cares that the 1 in 8 statistic is a lie, everybody uses it because it is a means to their end.

    I am glad that we all continue to speak out against it but we are small voices in a large wave. And, being a woman with metastatic cancer, I know I will die before I ever see change. In October I, like many cancer bloggers, do a round-up of the more egregious violations – like this town in New Jersey. I do see that many in the breast cancer community are waking up to what the pink promotions are actually doing, but each year, more and more women are diagnosed who jump on the pink bandwagon, run races, and believe they are the brave warriors that they are told they are in order to sell product.

    I hope that people start donating to charities like Stand Up 2 Cancer rather than Komen – to research rather than awareness. I fear that the distinction is too subtle for many.

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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

** MORE MEDIA LINKS **
** MORE RADIO INTERVIEWS **