The Unbearable Weight of the Pink Ribbon

LA Times

LA Times, Laurie Becklund covered the war in El Salvador, writing stories that would change Americans’ perception of the war. (Elizabeth Rose Becklund Weinstein)

Former writer for the L.A. Times Laurie Becklund, age 66, died on February 8th from metastatic breast cancer. Metastasis refers to the spread of cancer to different parts of the body, most often the bones, liver, lungs or brain. Becklund’s cancer went to all four sites.

As she lay dying, Becklund wrote a scathing op-ed, published after her death, that denounced breast cancer culture – the “painfully out of date” awareness messages; the false but upbeat assurances showered upon ‘survivors’; the misleading “early detection” mantras that accompany almost every breast cancer campaign; the collateral damage of treatments and the failures of “gold standard’ medical protocols that rarely receive attention within the health care system or beyond it; the devastating trespasses of the wealthiest breast cancer charity in the world, Susan G. Komen [for a Cure], an organization that claims to save lives but “channels only a fraction of those funds into research or systems to help those who are already seriously sick.”

With 40 thousand women and hundreds of men dying from metastatic (stage 4) breast cancer every year, an average prognosis of 2 to 4 years, and no “cure” in sight, metastatic breast cancer patients are patients to the end. There have been some improvements in treatment. When one fails, another may be tried, if the body is not too compromised already, until there are no more treatments left to try. In the end, nobody gets out alive. “The system we live in as metastatic breast cancer patients,” Becklund retorts, “is simply not designed to deal with the cycle we are living and dying in.”

Abundant attention to fundraising, generalized awareness, and early detection for those who do not have breast cancer and are not likely to die from the disease creates a situation in which those who are most in need of social support, resources, and understanding are largely ignored. In addition, most awareness campaigns overlook several key facts about breast cancer:

For those with metastatic disease, these little known facts make a world of difference. They also make people like Laurie Becklund very angry.

“Promise me you’ll never wear a pink ribbon in my name or drop a dollar into a bucket that goes to breast cancer “awareness” for “early detection for a cure,” the mantra of fund-raising juggernaut Susan G. Komen, which has propagated a distorted message about breast cancer and how to “cure” it.”

As I was reading Becklund’s piece again, I saw another recent advertisement from Susan G. Komen. It features a young white woman with straight brown hair, long and streaked with two-toned hot pink dye, resembling Komen’s two-toned, trademarked running ribbon logo.


This girl is tough. Her furled brow and bared teeth join forces with an outstretched fist and aggressive stance to make a serious pink-colored demand: DON’T LET BREAST CANCER WIN. The large button in the lower right hand corner, not quite but almost the color of money, tells you in large letters what to do: DONATE.

In other words, if YOU don’t give KOMEN your money, breast cancer will reign triumphant because you let it win. For Lori Marx-Rubiner the message for the diagnosed is even more chastising: “only the weak die of cancer.”

Advertisers typically use appeals to emotion or logic to influence consumers to buy their products or buy in to their way of thinking. Komen uses a common persuasive device, fear-appeal. Echoing other fear-inducing elements abundant in breast cancer awareness campaigns, we see that women (even young, active ones) are up against a formidable opponent. And if women don’t fight, breast cancer will win. Only here, fighting has nothing to do with taking actions that would limit breast cancer’s toll. Instead, Komen relies on the tough girl image to impel women to give them money and then, passively, let Komen get the job done.

Komen is not alone in claiming that the more people give them money (to fight breast cancer) the more lives will be saved. If it were that simple, breast cancer would have been solved long ago.

For Laurie Becklund and countless others, such promises aren’t good enough.

Beth Fairchild is another woman with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. She too is tired of “awareness” and all the “warriors” and “winners” because no one really wins at breast cancer.

To give those with metastasis a voice, she’s planned a PINK OUT for today to get more people to pay attention to the pink elephant in the room. She hopes to get this side of breast cancer trending in social media. Today is #Metsmonday.

First published on Psychology Today »

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"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

“Pink Ribbon Blues”

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