Hidden by the ribbon

June 4, 2012

How much of the money raised in the name of breast cancer research actually goes to breast cancer research? Leela Yellesetty reviews the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc.

MY MOM was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 13 years old. Thankfully, it was the kind which was treatable when caught early, which it was, and she has been healthy and in remission for many years now.

I will always admire my mom for how gracefully she handled such a horrible experience, from the agonizing uncertainty of waiting for test results, to the grueling chemotherapy treatments.

My mom has always had an exceptional talent for finding and bringing out the good in everyone and everything, and so I shouldn't be surprised that she approached cancer in the same manner--as a chance to appreciate what she had and explore new opportunities, including going back to school to get her master's degree.

I'm sure it wasn't an easy experience for her, and I can't speak to how she really felt at the time, but that was my impression of her, as a fountain of positivity and strength.

I wish I could say I had a similar outlook, but I was a moody teenager at the time. I selfishly bemoaned how my mom's cancer had turned my life upside down, how we had to move to a new city because there was no chemotherapy facility in my hometown.

Participants in the 2010 Avon Walk for Breast Cancer
Participants in the 2010 Avon Walk for Breast Cancer (Lea Pool)

I was embarrassed by how freely and honestly my mom would talk to everyone about her cancer, even the less than pleasant details. I didn't want to think about it or talk about it. I was angry about it.

And I hated the pink ribbons.

I understood why my mom and so many thousands of women participated in Walk for the Cure and events like it. It can be gratifying and empowering to join together with others who underwent the same struggle, to feel that you are doing something, collectively, to make a difference.

But I still hated all the pink, and, especially as I got a bit older and got active in the global justice movement, I noticed something else about these events--the insane amount of swag my mom came home with, all adorned corporate logos.

These were the same corporations I protested against, who were willing to shred human rights and environmental regulations for the chance to make a quick buck. Were they really that committed to curing cancer?

Around the same time, I read an article by Barbara Ehrenreich, a breast cancer sufferer herself, which crystallized a lot of my suspicions. She took aim both at the manipulative corporate cause marketing, using cancer to sell more products, as well as the breast cancer culture that arose along with it.

Women are urged and expected to be positive at all times about their cancer experience. They are also infantilized by all the pink. Ehrenreich's own breaking point came when she was offered a pink teddy bear in the oncology waiting room. As she describes in the new documentary, Pink Ribbons, Inc., "It offends my sense of dignity. I'm sorry. I'm not 6 years old."

EHRENREICH IS one among many voices in this fascinating documentary exploring the dark underside of the pink ribbon phenomenon. Since my mom had cancer, the pink has only grown more ubiquitous--featured on everything from cars to toilet paper. The film investigates whether or not bathing various national monuments in pink light actually does anything to fight breast cancer.

Despite the billions of dollars raised by the Susan G. Komen foundation, the Avon Foundation and other charities, we are still losing the fight against breast cancer. In the 1940s, a woman's chance of getting breast cancer was 1 in 22. Now it is 1 in 8.

As renowned breast cancer advocate Dr. Susan Love notes in the film, our understanding of how cancer works is still incredibly primitive. In fact, we are just now learning that breast cancer may not be one but several distinct diseases. We still use what Love calls the "slash, burn and poison" approach to treating it--"That's what you do when you don't understand it," she says.

One reason for this is because a relatively tiny portion of the funds raised for the "cure" actually goes toward researching the causes of and prevention of cancer. Instead, the bulk of the research (which as the film points out is completely uncoordinated, leading to duplication along with huge gaps) goes toward development of new pharmaceuticals that promise incrementally better life expectancies--or toward the amorphous goal of "raising awareness."

While encouraging early detection does help some women with some types of cancer (although it's dangerous to think of it as a panacea), the goal of "raising awareness" has come to mean something much more general and less laudable--namely, the opportunity to market all sorts of pink merchandize, often with only pennies on the dollar actually going toward the "cause" at all.

It also deflects attention from asking whether the companies pushing these products may in fact be part of the problem. The film highlights some of the worst offenders in this category, like pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, which touts its development of cancer drugs, at the same time as it produces recombinant bovine growth hormone, which is known to cause cancer.

Cosmetic company products filled with toxic chemicals and air polluting cars are also marketed under the pink ribbon. While not all these products have been conclusively linked to cancer--due primarily to lack of funding for the research--there is more than enough evidence to suggest that these sorts of environmental factors are a major cause of breast cancer. Take, for instance, the focus group of women who worked in the plastics industry, describing the hugely disproportionate rates of cancer they've endured.

The documentary alternates from asking these blunt and troubling questions and giving voice to the experience of those living with--and dying of--breast cancer. While questioning the motives of its corporate sponsors, the film doesn't look down on those who participate in Race for the Cure and other events, and allows them to speak to what it means to them.

At the same time, the smiling, triumphant atmosphere of the walks and races, the stories of "survivors" who successfully "fought" their breast cancer, are contrasted with interviews with members of a Stage 4 cancer support group. For them, facing a disease that will kill them no matter how hard they fight or how positive they are, the upbeat message of Pink Ribbon, Inc. can feel like an accusation. "You're the angel of death," says one. "You're the elephant in the room."

THIS FILM is coming out a time when the Komen Foundation is under growing scrutiny, from its much-denounced move to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood earlier this year, to its questionable "pink bucket" partnership with the ever-healthful KFC. As a result, Komen has seen registrations for their races decline precipitously this year.

But more than just denouncing the Komen approach to confronting breast cancer, this film offers a positive alternative. Scenes of today's pink ribbon parades are interspersed with footage of grassroots protests in the 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, many people may be surprised to learn the origins of the breast cancer ribbon as described in the film.

The original ribbons were peach-colored, handmade by 68-year-old Charlotte Haley, and attached to a card that read, "The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon."

When Self magazine and Estée Lauder cosmetics approached Haley, offering to give her campaign a massive publicity boost, she refused. "She wanted nothing to do with us. Said we were too commercial," recalled Self editor Alexandra Penney, "but we really wanted to do a ribbon. We asked our lawyers and they said, 'Come up with another color.'" They chose pink, and the rest is history.

The film also includes the voices of grassroots activists who continue to organize today, such as the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action, which challenges corporate pinkwashing and demands funding to research environmental causes of cancer.

As Samantha King, author of Pink Ribbons, Inc.--the book on which the documentary is based--told Salon.com in an interview, "People now understand disease through the lens of consumption. I talk to people who can't really think of doing good work outside of selling or buying stuff. That's not their experience. They haven't been exposed to alternatives."

"People are really busy," she continued, "and this stuff is fun and makes you feel nice. But that kind of solidarity and community is fleeting, and it doesn't sustain a political movement. I hope this film changes the conversation around what it really means to do good."

Pink Ribbons, Inc. opens in select cities starting in June--see it if you can!

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