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.

Be Sociable, Share!

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?

"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”

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

Praise » 

Flyer »

Press Release »

Hardback Cover »

Paperback Cover »

Request Review Copies »

Order the Paperback »


"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

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?

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