Unfashionable Diseases and Less Glamorous Cancers

“Cancer charities which work with less glamorous cancers, bowel, lung, pancreatic for example, let alone charities working with distinctly unfashionable diseases…mental health charities and Alzheimers… envy the ease with which consumers spend on pink products, though some cancer charities may welcome the ‘trickle down’ effect.” –comment to The New York Times article Pink Ribbon Fatigue

What is it about breast cancer that is so glamorous? It’s pink. As I write in What’s in a Color? “the cause of breast cancer has been constructed as a moral crusade, a domestic war to be fought by and for women.” The pink ribbon evokes feminine purity and virtue. Unlike diseases that may arise from socially condemned behaviors or lifestyles (i.e., smoking or sex), we see breast cancer as a disease of innocence of —daughters, sisters, mothers, friends, wives, grandmothers—who did nothing to bring the disease upon themselves and who, in fact, may have done everything they could think of to avoid it.

Pink also references a society that equates women with their bodies, and especially their breasts. Gemma Tarlach writes in a Breast Cancer Action Newsletter:

“Nowhere, perhaps aside from Hooters, is this equation more ingrained than in the breast cancer industry, a monolith marketed by corporate America that reinforces stereotypes about what it means to be a woman. Woman = breast = pink.”

Pink cause marketing is rife with examples. T-shirts read: “save the tatas” and “stop the war in my rack;” Men’s versions: “Tatas are awesome;” and, “If loving tatas is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.” Posters say, “Don’t let breast cancer steal second base.” Fundraisers are titled “Bowling for Boobs.” A recent Facebook stunt (with emoticons) says, “Fake, perfect, perky, cold, big, small, and even grandmas. Save them All!!” We’re supposed to pass it around for breast cancer awareness.

Pink is easy to sell. It capitalizes on sexualization and consumption. Jewelry, clothing, cosmetics, perfumes, shoes, accessories, household products, travel, you name it. Especially with the rise of cause marketing, pink ribbon culture sells a pink lifestyle, and one that is no longer limited to women. Men in pink jerseys have also become quite fashionable. And those, “I love boobies” bracelets are especially popular among young men. What’s not popular? Everything else.

An article by Callie Enlow in the San Antonio Current about a specific patient group known as Adolescent/Young Adult, or AYA, represents cancer patients aged 15 to 39. It stresses the point that there are forgotten groups of cancer patients that do not receive the same attention, funding, treatment, support, and advocacy as other groups. The AYA population faces difficult treatment, complicated survivorship issues, and often a lack of insurance. Enlow writes:

“The trick is still convincing the general public to support and advocate for AYA awareness, much like community support boosted breast cancer and pediatric cancer awareness two decades ago.”

As a start, I’m Too Young For This is an organization dedicated to providing resources, information, and support to a “voiceless generation of cancer survivors.”

The success of the pink ribbon in cause marketing and public relations campaigns has created a huge gulf in resources among among different diseases. At the same time, all of the attention, fundraising, and awareness activities for breast cancer have not resulted in a deep understanding of the disease or how to eradicate it. It may be that we need to unite and integrate research and support efforts to a much greater degree. As commenter Mary wrote:

“All cancer patients deserve a lifetime – not just the pink ones or the ones that make American corporations like nice and feel good.”

As it is now 40 percent of women diagnosed with an invasive type of breast cancer still die within 20 years of diagnosis. Who is the ribbon really working for anyway?

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3 comments to Unfashionable Diseases and Less Glamorous Cancers

  • Women with breast cancer support all our brothers and sisters with cancer. We are tired of being used in marketing campaigns, we know everybody is “aware” of breast cancer, and we want research dollars to go towards effective treatments for ALL cancers.

    You can go to my blog to read more.


  • Elais

    If ‘unfashionable’ diseases aren’t getting attention or money, that is not the fault of Komen and other Pink organizations.

    It isn’t a zero sum game where there is a limited pot of money and breast cancer awareness is sucking up all of it to the cost of all other cancers.

    Quit your bitching and work as hard and as visibly as those breast cancer groups! Don’t demand they knock themselves down just to fund YOU.

  • The essay is not suggesting that people should knock down breast cancer organizations. In fact, the website lists community organizations in each state across the country. There are hundreds of organizations working in their local communities to address the needs of the diagnosed as well as national organizations that focus on various dimensions of breast cancer as a broader health concern. Those who are questioning the marketing of breast cancer (which also includes a critique of advertising techniques and stereotypical imagery) tend to recognize that there is a lack of attention to other diseases. Looking at public health as a whole might create useful connections among the diagnosed as well as benefit more people.

"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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