“Pinkwashed” breast cancer campaigns alienating, unhelpful to many women

When breast cancer foundations first started in the 1970s, their goal was to bring awareness to the public about this “taboo” disease and to work together to find a cure. They have been successful in making breast cancer a public issue—so public that breast cancer awareness has become a product sold by every football team, grocery store and media outlet across the country. The breast cancer industry has become a deeply flawed, yet incredibly successful enterprise whose funds are being used in ways that no longer deserve support. Together, companies like the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation and the Avon Foundation make hundreds of millions of dollars each year, along with hundreds of smaller companies who also raise money for breast cancer research.

Despite the amazing financial success of these companies, the documentary film Pink Ribbons, Inc. reports that only about 15 percent of all the money raised is spent on researching prevention, and 5 percent is spent on researching environmental causes of breast cancer. Furthermore, the lack of coordination among competing foundations means that thousands of dollars are being spent by multiple organizations to fund needless repetition of the same research.

With so little money going toward research, it is hard to say where the rest of the funds are going. It is clear, however, that a great deal of money is being spent on campaigns that seek to raise “awareness” of breast cancer by placing the pink ribbon on everything from teddy bears to Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets. As the activist group Breast Cancer Action points out, many of the companies that stamp their products with pink ribbons and promise to donate to breast cancer foundations––such as Ford Motors, Yoplait and Avon Products, Inc.––are actually producing carcinogens themselves.

The pink ribbon sells the message of hope, survivorship and finding a cure. The truth of the matter is that many of those diagnosed with breast cancer will not live to become breast cancer survivors. According to American Cancer Society’s figures, a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer is about one in eight. This rate has only increased by roughly 10 percent since the 1940s.

When my aunt’s breast cancer progressed through the first stage all the way to the fourth––where the cancer spreads to other organs––she felt completely abandoned by the breast cancer movement. Every commercialized pink ribbon she saw was just another reminder that there was no hope of her becoming a breast cancer survivor. As the focus for her treatment turned to elongating her life, she and every other person in the later stages of breast cancer were dropped from the movement’s rhetoric of cheerfulness.

Cancer kills people. Most adults are aware of this, yet this is where breast cancer “awareness” campaigns fail. The problem is not that people don’t know about breast cancer or how to detect it—the movement has done an excellent job increasing women’s mammography rates in recent years. When these foundations place their pink ribbons on every piece of merchandise, however, their focus turns to commercialization rather than finding a cure.

Making breast cancer pink, pretty and feminine does not help find a cure. We should not support companies that exploit the pink ribbon while failing to truly support those suffering with breast cancer.