The commercialization of breast cancer: do your research before contributing to the cause
It's Pinktober. Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Oh, I'm aware. I watched breast cancer steal the life of one of my best friends. Another is battling a frightening recurrence after several years in remission.
But I'm no more or less worried about her than I am about the 20-year-old niece of a friend who was just diagnosed with sarcoma. And the friend who's in treatment for lung cancer.
The problem isn't awareness. It's that breast cancer has become big business, a huge revenue-generating machine for companies that offer the proverbial pink tin cup of products or link to breast cancer to improve their own image.
Never mind that some of the very companies that promote breast cancer awareness actually sell, manufacture or use chemicals or products that are linked to its cause. Or that some suspect that advertising expenditures often exceed actual donations to the cause.
Even the NFL, despite its — shall I say complicated — history with women, has embraced pink in the name of saving breasts.
Yep, marketers have slapped pink on everything from cleats to cars to planes to booze to guns. Yet for all the pink frenzy, the number of annual deaths from breast cancer remains the same today as it was ten years ago. Branding breast cancer seems to have done more for companies than breast cancer patients.
But let's face it. Breasts are symbols of femininity and motherhood. They're sexy. And sex sells, even if it means turning a deadly disease into a glorified marketing tool.
Anyone who's read my posts for any length of time knows that I'm a non-Hodgkin lymphoma survivor, so this might sound like sour grapes. On the contrary, but more about that in a minute. My point here is that I've pitched stories to the national media about various blood cancer issues, only to be told by not one but by several reporters, "If this were about breast cancer, there would be a story. Lymphoma's just not sexy."
I get what they meant, but trust me: No cancer is sexy. Least of all to the women who actually lose their breasts.
Yet corporate America has done an outstanding job of exploiting breast cancer. I've lost count of the items that are available in pink. But I haven't lost count of the number of men (yes, men) and women who were diagnosed last year: 209,060. Or the number of men and women who died: 40,230. Undoubtedly, more needs to be done.
Even some breast cancer activists have begun to ask if breast cancer awareness has lost its focus. Says Karuna Jaggar, executive director Breast Cancer Action, which has led a campaign to question pink products, "At one time, pink was the means. Now, it's almost become the end in itself. In its most simplistic forms, pink has become a distraction. You put a pink ribbon on it, people stop asking questions."
Indeed, because breast cancer is such a popular cause — it's almost un-American not to support pink — it's difficult to ask hard questions. When we do, says Gayle Sulik, author of Pink Ribbon Blues, "Well, then, you must hate women. That mentality makes it really hard to say 'What's working? What's not working?' "
And those are the very questions that need to be asked and answered if we really want to cure breast cancer. Or any other cancer.
Progress has been made. Thanks to earlier detection and better treatments, the mortality rate for breast cancer has dropped 27.4 percent since 1975, and some are considered cured, but when the disease metastasizes, i.e., migrates from the breast into other areas of the body, it's "no more curable than it was 20 years ago," says Dr. Debu Tripathy in Cure Magazine.
While metastatic disease can be treated and women are living longer, fewer than one out of every four survive five years.
In every case, metastatic disease is why people die from breast cancer, says Dr. Eric Winer, director of breast cancer oncology at the Dana Farber Institute in a recent New York Times article. Further, metastasis expert Danny Welch, Ph.D., says that metastasis gets less than 5 percent of the research budget. Doesn't it make sense to allocate more toward understanding and finding ways to stop the real killer?
There's also a racial and socioeconomic survival gap. The five year relative survival rate (relative survival measures survival of cancer patients to the general population) for white women is 90 percent, but 77 percent for African American women.
The American Cancer Society explains. "Lack of health insurance is associated with lower survival among breast cancer patients. Moreover, breast cancer patients from lower income areas have lower five-year relative survival rates than those from higher income areas at every stage of diagnosis."
If we're committed to curing breast cancer, shouldn't we be figuring out how to test and treat those who are left behind simply because they don't have the money to get the care they need and to fund research initiatives that can turn the tide?
Wouldn't it be more effective for the NFL to fund testing and treatment for those in need instead of spending money on pink cleats or pink towels for fans to wave at games? Think about it. If pink towels cost $1 each (they're probably more) and they're given to 100,000 fans, how far could $100,000 go in helping a researcher or a woman who has no access to care?
Or how about corporate America making a direct contribution to research or helping real people in real need? Wouldn't that make a much bigger difference than inundating us with products for their own profit or image?
And that leads me out on the proverbial limb on which I don't ordinarily climb, but in the name of all cancers, maybe it's time to remind marketers that cancer has a big picture.
In real numbers, deaths from breast cancer last year represented 7 percent (40,230) of all cancer deaths. Every one was devastating to a family, but 93 percent of deaths (529,260) were caused by another type. Undoubtedly, the families of those people cried no less.
And of the 1,529,560 people who heard "You have cancer" last year, 14 percent (209,060) heard "You have breast cancer." I'd be willing to bet that the other 86 percent (1,320,500) were no less frightened.
Has it ever occurred to marketers that those who experience a different type of cancer (we're consumers, too!) might feel — dare I say it? — slighted by the disproportionate share of attention lavished on one type of cancer, as if their lives are somehow less important?
My breast cancer friends know better. Says Mel Majoros, breast cancer survivor and author of the award winning blog The Cancer Warrior, "We are all aware there is breast cancer, but let's not forget about the rest of the body. Without our blood, our brain, our skin, etc., we couldn't function." Amen.
Mel adds, "It's time for researchers to come together and stop thinking of the body as parts but as a whole." Fortunately, they are.
Researchers are indeed beginning to work across specialty lines because they're uncovering commonalities in cancers that were once thought to be dissimilar, and what they learn about one type of cancer is informing them about others. That's why every single type of cancer is important: we never know which one will unlock the next clue. In other words, we really are all in this together.
As someone who has learned more about cancer than I ever wanted to know, I understand the importance of raising awareness and funds, and I'm very grateful to everyone who helps, but I'm also keenly aware that the efforts need to count for more than raising corporate image. They need to lead to improved outcomes. And in the case of breast cancer, I repeat, the number of annual deaths has not diminished in the last 10 years. Has commercialization led to complacency?
Maybe buying pink rubber duckies, firing pink Smith and Wessons, or ordering pizza in pink boxes makes us feel like we've done our part, but if we really want to make a difference, we'd be better off making a direct donation to reputable organizations which actually fund research or help uninsured women get mammograms — and treatment. Or by lobbying for real solutions to health care reform so that the uninsured have access to care, including prevention.
My friend Mel has this to say: "If you are going to donate to a cancer organization, make sure it is one that you can believe in. Do your research. Don't just buy something because it goes to 'breast cancer research.' "
Or in the words of Breast Cancer Action, "Think before you pink."
Betsy de Parry is the author of Adventures In Cancer Land coming out early November. She is currently producing a series of reports about cancer that will air on the PBS show "A Wider World" beginning in November. Find her on Facebook or email her.