Connecting the Pepto Pink Dots: Why Pink Ribbons and Screening Are Not Enough

Breast Cancer Action’s executive director, Karuna Jaggar, has a vision for health equity in which every woman affected by breast cancer has the power and knowledge to make informed decisions that enable them to take control of their healthcare. This includes a woman’s right to access affordable treatment options, to create individualized treatment plans that reflect personal values and priorities, and to avoid involuntary exposure to environmental toxins. Karuna is an unapologetic patient advocate for close family members who have undergone treatment for breast cancer and is the parent of two young daughters. With permission, Pink Ribbon Blues republishes Karuna Jaggar’s essay, “Connecting the Pepto Pink Dots,” on the difference between symbolic gestures of pink support and the federal responsibility to address women’s health in concrete ways.

During last week’s presidential debate, we saw Ann Romney and Michelle Obama sporting almost identical pepto-pink outfits. No one said “breast cancer,” but everyone got the tacit pink nod to Breast Cancer Industry Month.

What are we to make of this symbolic gesture in the middle of a month devoted to “awareness” of a disease that kills 40,000 women a year? To get at real solutions to the breast cancer epidemic, we have to go beyond pink.

Pink, without substance or even acknowledgment of a disease that kills 40,000 women a year, is emblematic of a simplistic and ineffective approach to addressing and ending the breast cancer epidemic. Pink means screening, specifically mammography, early and often, regardless of risk.  Pink means “shopping for the cure,” buying pink products as the highest form of activism and commitment to the cause.

Michelle Obama and Ann Romney wore similarly hued pink attire for the second presidential debate.

There are no quick fixes to the breast cancer epidemic and quick fix solutions like “get screened” and “buy pink” do a disservice to women’s health and therefore to all of us. The breast cancer epidemic is a public health crisis requiring complex, system-wide solutions. Our government has a central role to play in this public health crisis.

During the debate, President Obama rightly addressed women’s health as a complex issue. He connected the dots between healthcare, including contraception and preventative services, childcare, and the economy. These connections are important for women’s health.

But we cannot stop where President Obama did. Breast cancer, like all women’s health issues, is inextricably tied to environmental, economic, social, and racial justice issues we didn’t hear about in last night’s debate.

I wish we’d heard about toxins in our environment that harm our health and increase our risk of breast cancer, and which none of us can fully avoid through by buying so-called healthier products. I wish we’d heard about how inequities in health outcomes are related to where we live, work and play – not just access to healthcare, as vital as it is. I wish we’d heard how important it is for government to always put our health before corporate profits, including at the Food & Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. These are all issues central to women’s health which demand our attention, and we will not address and end the breast cancer epidemic without connecting the dots.

40,000 women will die of breast cancer this year. In 1960, 1 in 20 women who lived to age 85 would get breast cancer. Today, that number is 1 in 8. Breast cancer is not an individual problem; it is a public health crisis and systemic issue. The roots of this public health crisis are complex, and we need complex solutions to address and end it.

That’s why our government has a unique and essential role in protecting and supporting women’s health. As individuals we cannot shop, or run, or walk our way out of the breast cancer epidemic. We need our government to work in our collective interest to invest in independent research, regulate toxic polluters, and get at the roots of health inequities. Together we should demand our government step up to that role in all its complexity. Fashion bloggers labeled Michelle and Ann’s wardrobe synchronicity an “oops.” The real “oops” in this election and beyond would be continuing to put the burden of responsibility on individual women to not get breast cancer and then pink their way through it if they do.

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1 comment to Connecting the Pepto Pink Dots: Why Pink Ribbons and Screening Are Not Enough

  • That both Mrs Obama and Mrs Romney wore pink caught my eye, and I was similarly disappointed that neither woman’s husband mentioned our devastating disease in the debate. Which candidate will tackle this big issue and its myriad effects on the women of this country and around the world?

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“Pink Ribbon Blues,” Book

Paperback includes new Introduction on fundraising controversies and color insert with images of, and reactions to, the pinking of breast cancer (2012).

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