Breast Cancer: Just the Facts, Ma’am

Laurie and Debbie say:

It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the United States, which might be a good thing if it increased breast cancer awareness. Instead, it far too often reinforces stereotypes, gives marketers a hook, and increases the amount of pink in the world.

Before we get to the two stories that got us started down this road, let’s just review the statistics. Almost everyone has heard the “1 in 8 women will get breast cancer in their lifetime.” This is, more or less, a true statement, but it’s rarely accompanied by the reminder that four of those women will get breast cancer over the age of 60 and two of those will be over the age of 70. This says something about increased cancer tracking to increased life span. Breast cancer death rates have been decreasing since 1989, and breast cancer incidence has been decreasing since 2002.

If anyone has ever told you that Asian women “don’t get breast cancer,” they were wrong. Going back to the statistics link above, Asian women get breast cancer at approximately 2/3 of the rate of white non-Hispanic women, which is absolutely not an excuse for a doctor to rule out or ignore the possibility. As Angry Asian Man says at the link:

The National Asian Breast Cancer Initiative is a … national initiative to address the unique cultural, linguistic and genetic challenges that Asian women face related to breast cancer.

During the month of October, NABCI has entitled this campaign “Asian women don’t get breast cancer” in honor of breast cancer activist Susan Shinagawa — and for the express purpose is dispelling this fallacy.

Shinagawa is in treatment for an unrelated breast cancer recurrence. During her first breast cancer, she initially wasn’t sent for a biopsy because two different doctors didn’t believe she could have breast cancer.

(Many diseases are racialized in this way, and many people die of medical assumptions based on how they look–as clear an example as any of how body image can be a life-and-death issue.)

Men get breast cancer too–about 1 in 1,000 men will get breast cancer in their lifetimes. This is still enough to make it important for doctors to take the possibility seriously.

Meanwhile, while women are threatened with imminent breast cancer (1 in 8 of you!) and simultaneously turned away from breast cancer diagnosis because epicanthic folds in your eyelids are somehow evidence of what’s happening in your breast tissue, corporations have your back. Everywhere we turn in October, something else is pink, because Breast Cancer Awareness Is Important. Unless, of course, the pink products are trying to kill you.

Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel lists ten of these products, and puts them all in the context of “pinkwashing,” a term coined by Breast Cancer Action to describe “insidious Breast Cancer® cause marketing that doesn’t actually do anything but exploit people’s good intentions to at best pad corporate pockets and at worst convince people to expose themselves to carcinogenic chemicals For The Cause.”

Examples include:

Chevrolet has promised to donate $10 from each tests drive on select dates in October and November to an American Cancer Society program. Problem is that many, many chemicals involved in the manufacture of cars demonstrably cause cancer. In fact, women who work in automobile manufacturing are much more likely to develop breast cancer than women who do not.

But hey, who would expect Chevrolet to actually clean up its act and make its employees safer? Pink is easier!

A portion of profits from sales of Dramatically Different face lotion by Clinique are being donated to a Breast Cancer® charity. Unfortunately, Dramatically Different contains propylparaben, a hormone disruptor (hormone disruptors, as a class of chemicals, have been linked to breast cancer).

We do disagree with Ryan about her unexamined connection between “obesity” and breast cancer, especially since her link on the subject is only about recurrence of breast cancer and not initial appearance. But her point about pinkwashing and dangerous products is still valid.

What should you do for Breast Cancer Awareness Month? Check your breasts. Have a mammogram if you’re due for one. Catch up on your statistics. If you want to donate, donate to the National Asian Breast Cancer Initiative or some other anti-corporate activist group. Don’t buy anything pink unless you want it anyway.