Changing the Conversation about Breast Cancer, One Conversation at a Time

It’s nearly impossible to take a vacation from pink ribbon culture. Even an escape to the sandy shores of south Jersey doesn’t guarantee entrée to a ribbon-free zone. To a great extent that’s because breast cancer activists did such a good job raising awareness about the importance of the breast cancer epidemic. Unfortunately, after that little pink ribbon transmuted from an awareness symbol to a brand logo, things changed. Now, it’s a convenient icon used to sell anything from toilet paper to fried chicken. Sure, the sales are made in the name of a “cure” but are they really anything more than a simple revenue stream for anyone (including breast cancer organizations) to make a buck off of a disease that affects millions of women and kills tens of thousands each year?

At the center of the big pink enterprise is the largest breast cancer organization in the world, Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Komen has been on my radar for many years. I am a breast cancer activist and a biology professor who teaches about women and health, with a strong environmental focus. Komen’s approach to breast cancer advocacy runs counter to what I know of breast cancer after decades of researching the subject.

Komen’s advocacy, for instance, centers on shopping for a cure, obeying the “best” doctor you can find, and getting your annual mammogram starting at age 40 so you can “beat” breast cancer. The decades-long controversy over screening mammograms should be an automatic red flag to alert everyone to its limitations, but Komen continues to ignore clinical trials and analyses while still claiming that most women can be saved by their mammograms. Komen also stresses that individuals should simply modify their “lifestyle” to decrease risk, while ignoring increasing evidence that industrial and agricultural poisons promote cancers through direct carcinogenic action or less direct “endocrine disruption.” Compared to the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD and annual conference (, Komen’s education falls short of empowering women to question medical authority and demand evidence-based medicine in breast cancer detection and treatment.

In recent years, some of Komen’s shenanigans hit the press despite incessant advertising, rhetoric, and carefully placed public relations materials. But it took a collision with women’s rights to awaken many to the down side of Komen’s breast cancer messages and underlying philosophy. After the Planned Parenthood scandal, Komen could no longer hide its commitment to the Republican Party politics that moved to an extreme position against women’s rights. Komen had a history of bedfellows in the Republican Party—which had moved farther and farther to the right (since Ronald Reagan) against accurate sex education, basic contraception, and abortion — and what these rights mean for women’s health. Komen founder Nancy Brinker boasted of resisting anti-choice pressure to cut Komen’s grants to Planned Parenthood, but a new policy director with a clear political record against reproductive choice, Karen Handel, helped the charity to acquiesce.

After it hit the fan with the Komen/Planned Parenthood scandal, the public finally had a glimpse of the charity’s political motivations. So when I was on vacation and made my way into a clothing boutique, I was somewhat startled to see a rack of summer clothes, each with a round “Komen for the Cure” tag and the trademarked running ribbon. Didn’t these folks know that Komen products might not be such good advertising??? I had to inquire.

I walked over to the young sales woman to ask if she knew about the flap over Komen and Planned Parenthood. She did not. I told her that Komen had bowed to pressure from far right political interests and cut off funding to Planned Parenthood for breast exams and screenings. The young woman nodded with interest, so I also told her that only a small proportion of Planned Parenthood’s services even involved abortions. The organization mostly provides healthcare, including contraception to students and those with limited income. “Yes,” she said, “I know that; I just graduated from Catholic University.”  I did not assume she would be anti-choice, since many Catholic women approve of birth control and have had abortions.

I could tell this young woman had a keen mind and wanted to know more, so I suggested that she find out about Komen for herself. “Just GOOGLE Komen and Planned Parenthood,” I said. As I walked away, she was typing into her smart phone.  In a moment, she came over and said I was right. She was amazed at what Komen had done and seemed very supportive of the criticism. She thanked me, and I encouraged her to share the information she found with the boutique’s owner, since so many who had supported Komen in the past were refusing to run for the cure anymore.  She said she would, suggesting that she and the owners were like-minded.

A simple conversation in a clothing store raised real awareness — not only about breast cancer, but about the power of everyday activism. I could have ignored the Komen dress and hurried on my way. My sales person could have shrugged off our conversation or claimed that she had “no say” in the store’s merchandising. Instead, we talked. We listened. We even smiled. Contentious as the Komen/Planned Parenthood situation is, and rightly so, critical thinking and compassionate communication need not be.

That sales woman got me thinking. What if consumers started confronting store managers about their concerns about Komen? What if stores started to refuse selling Komen related merchandise? What if companies reconsidered their partnerships with Komen? How might that change the conversation about breast cancer?

Brief Biography:

Bonnie Spanier received her doctorate from Harvard University in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. While teaching biology at Wheaton College in MA, she received grants from the National Institutes of Health and the American Lung Association. A grant from the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College about Women in American Society catalyzed her move to develop pioneering feminist analyses of the sciences. Her book on the influence of sexist beliefs on the content of biology, IM/PARTIAL SCIENCE: GENDER IDEOLOGY IN MOLECULAR BIOLOGY has been praised for its significance to physicians, scientists, and feminists. As a professor, Bonnie taught women’s studies at the University at Albany, New York, creating a course on Women, Biology, and Health. Semi-retired, she currently teaches a course on Women, Health, and the Environment at Grand Valley State University in Traverse City, Michigan. Bonnie Spanier co-founded CRAAB! Capital Region Action Against Breast Cancer in Albany, New York, and continues to be an activist for evidence-based medicine with a focus on women’s health. Bonnie Spanier was an advisor to Gayle Sulik during her graduate studies at the University at Albany (SUNY) and wrote the Foreword to Gayle Sulik’s book, “Pink Ribbon Blues.”

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5 comments to Changing the Conversation about Breast Cancer, One Conversation at a Time

  • Thanks for this thoughtful piece Bonnie! Indeed, the only way we can bring effective change to the direction of the breast cancer movement is one step at a time, one conversation at a time. Because of the many emotions that surround breast cancer, people have been hesitant to speak up for fear of sounding bitter or negative. We need to speak up! Your writing reminds me that we each have an individual responsibility to do what we can to turn the tide of pink to more productive pursuits. I am glad the voices that are speaking up are gaining volume. Keep up the good work!

  • Great piece. Donations are given for the cause of breast cancer, and not for the political aims of those who run the organisations.

    Somewhere along the line what is best for the person with breast cancer has been lost. Breast cancer is not a PR project with opportunities for branding and merchandising. It is a disease that kills nearly half a million people a year worldwide and its colour is not pretty pink. I belong to a small group who is trying to change the converstation at a grass roots level with a think tank for ideas to get metastatic breast cancer put higher up the agenda (hope it is ok to put in the link!/groups/InspiredMBCAdvocacy/).

  • Burns Carnes

    Now if we could just get you to speak on behalf of those of us with metastatic breast cancer (MBC). MBC is what kills cancer survivors (you know the happy faces in the frilly pink tutus proudly wearing all the pink ribbon). At the present only 2% of funding for breast cancer is devoted to finding treatments/cure for MBC. We need a strong voice! Can you please help us?

  • Yes, yes, yes! We actually have written a number of pieces on MBC. We agree with you wholeheartedly.

  • Thank you for sharing the link to your group, Victoria. I’d love it if you emailed me at with some additional information about the group.

"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

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*Sad face*: Being happy does not help you live longer" New Scientist

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

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