Samantha King, associate professor of physical and health education and women’s studies at Queen’s University in Ontario, argues in The Toronto Star (“Are we getting pinkwashed?”) that although the relatively new image of women with breast cancer as survivors and strong women, rather than victims or passive patients, is plainly a change for the better in some ways — optimism and camaraderie trump stigma and isolation — there are other problems with the now common notion of breast cancer as “an enriching and affirming experience.”
“Businesses looking to sell more products to female consumers have been quick to latch onto to changing attitudes toward breast cancer, and the pink ribbon industry that has emerged as a result is deeply dependent upon a positive image of the disease. Sickness and death do not sell, but images of survivors who are uniformly youthful, ultrafeminine, immaculately groomed, radiant with health, and seemingly at peace with the world, do. …
“Corporations are not alone in promoting an overly optimistic account of the struggle against the disease, however. It is quite possible to attend, as I have done, numerous splashy fundraising events and to come away with the impression that breast cancer is a disease from which people no longer die.”
On the contrary, mortality rates are only slightly less than 15 years ago, and options (surgery, chemo, radiation) are much the same. King says that the small decrease in mortality rates is due more to preventive tamoxifen (given to prevent recurrence, but which increases risk for uterine cancer) than to early detection, a finding also suggested by the California Breast Cancer Research Program. (The American Cancer Society strongly supports the use of mammograms, along with clinical breast exams, to reduce mortality.)
She notes that corporations and fundraising organisations often claim to be raising awareness as well as donating large sums to research for a cure, but she is skeptical of both these claims:
“What exactly are we being asked to gain awareness of? And how is the money being spent? For those campaigns and events that venture into specifics, awareness usually means preaching the benefits of early detection through mammograms.
“Although this approach might prompt people to discover if they already have breast cancer, this selective brand of awareness asks individuals to take personal responsibility for fending off the disease, while ignoring tougher questions related to what might be done to prevent it in the first place. And to overlook the limitations of mammography as a tool in the fight against breast cancer. Mammography is not a preventive technology, as its proponents often claim. …
“As for the funds raised, contrary to claims commonly made about the great difference a minor purchase can make, breast cancer marketing often makes relatively small sums of money for research.” She goes into more anecdotal detail on that.
King calls for “a well-funded research agenda” including “more effective, less-toxic treatments and, in particular, … research on how to stop tumours from spreading. After all, people don’t die from the tumours in their breasts; they die when they spread to other parts of their bodies.” And she suggests that we “take more seriously questions of primary prevention if we are going to make a real dent in incidence rates and stop this disease at its source. While the sums of money raised by pink ribbon products comprise a tiny percentage of total funding for research, consumers could urge corporations to direct their largesse, however minimal, to preventive science.”