Tag Archives: Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Pink Ribbon Culture? Who Benefits? Not People with Breast Cancer


Debbie says:

soupKaruna Jaggar of Breast Cancer Action has harsh words for what she calls “pink-ribbon culture.” See #6 for her definition of the stronger term “pinkwashing.”

Jaggar lays out the numbers:

Each year, 250,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer. Up to one-third of all breast cancers will metastasize (spread beyond the breast into the rest of the body); it is metastatic breast cancer that kills women. Black women are 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than their white counterparts. And each year, 40,000 women die of breast cancer, despite all the awareness and pink ribbons.

She gives a good history of the (admirable) roots of the pink ribbon, and goes on to list ” six ways that pink ribbon culture distracts from meaningful progress on breast cancer.” Here are two of them:

2. Corporations exploit concern about breast cancer for profit. Each October, marketers take advantage of people’s sincere concern about breast cancer to make money and generate good publicity. Anyone can put a pink ribbon on anything, and they do—from handguns to garbage trucks, from perfume to toilet paper. But there is no transparency or accountability about where the pink ribbon money goes. Sometimes no money at all from the purchase goes to a breast cancer organization. But even if the company does make a donation, most of these promotions ultimately benefit corporations far more than they help women living with and at risk of breast cancer.

6. Some pink ribbon products are linked to causing breast cancer. Years ago, Breast Cancer Action came up with a term for this, pinkwashing: the outrageous corporate practice of selling products linked to an increased risk of breast cancer while claiming to care about (and profiting from) breast cancer. This year, we are challenging two giant agricultural companies who are using leftover wastewater from oil corporations to irrigate their citrus—while also using pink ribbons to sell them.

(To be clear, I have no reason to believe that Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup causes cancer; I just love the Warhol-ish absurdity of the photo at the top of this blog.)


Dana Bolger at Feministing (who has previously profiled Jaggar), takes a moment to highlight just how far pink-ribbon October culture can go:

I wish I could say pinkwashing has reached new heights here (get it), but this is nothing new. Last year, Massachusetts cops introduced pink handcuffs (because where do women get better healthcare than… in prison?). And the year before that, Susan G. Komen teamed up with a fracking company to give us pink drill bits (and oh yeah also carcinogenic toxins).

Yep, that’s right, the U.S. military, known far and wide for its concern for human life (women’s or otherwise).  Jaggar shares an image at the link to her article of a pink handgun sold as part of a “breast cancer awareness kit.”

If you wear a ribbon as a memory of your own breast cancer experiences, or to honor someone you love, or to increase your own awareness of the scope and depth of the issue,  I support you, and I feel sure Jaggar and Bolger do so as well. Its the shameless co-optation of a loving symbol to shore up a deeply anti-human set of corporate goals and objectives we despise. It’s the eagerness to embrace a symbol while doing nothing for people with breast cancer (not all of whom are women), and doing nothing to clean up the toxins we deal with every day.  Perhaps worse, it’s the tacit permission for people to substitute shallow “awareness” for real, engaged concern.

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.