(Gerson Institute) October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so in the spirit of awareness-raising, I’d like to make you all a little more aware of what awareness campaigns are actually making you aware of.
Did my over-use of the word “awareness” in the previous sentence make your head spin a little? Well, that’s probably because the message of breast cancer awareness campaigns is mostly just that: spin.
The ubiquitous pink ribbons are merely a distraction from the fact that the organizations that sell them, ostensibly “for the cure,” are no closer to finding a cure than they were 20 years ago.
Now, before I examine the issues within the current state of breast cancer activism, let me first give credit where credit is due. In the past, there was a great deal of shame surrounding breast cancer. Because breast cancer affected what was considered a “private part,” so closely tied to sexuality, maternity and feminine identity, women were ashamed to publicly divulge their diagnoses or be examined and diagnosed at all.
Breast cancer was a disease spoken about behind closed doors, not something one would acknowledge in public. Women had little support, and there was little understanding or acknowledgement of the emotional ramifications of suffering from the disease, or the emotional trauma of losing one or both breasts. Many women suffered in silence with a deadly disease they considered shameful.
In 1974, former First Lady Betty Ford publicly announced that she had undergone a mastectomy for breast cancer, and is often credited with beginning the breast cancer awareness era. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, breast cancer awareness campaigns helped to de-stigmatize a terrible disease, and encouraged women to seek support and treatment. Women today feel more empowered to take control of their health, and not ashamed to seek help. And, to this day, these organizations dedicated to breast cancer awareness give women with breast cancer (and their loved ones) a feeling of community and support. These are all undeniably excellent developments that have greatly benefited women with breast cancer.
We’re all aware of breast cancer now though, right? Nowadays I feel more aware of “breast cancer awareness” than I do of the disease itself. It’s all been so heavily swaddled in pink ribbons that the disease itself seems secondary to the cutesy marketing of the disease.
But for now, let’s put the pinkwashing aside, and focus on the goals of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
The Susan G. Komen Foundation touts “finding the cure” as the primary impetus for donating and participating in their awareness campaigns, and the dollars and grants given in research as their primary charitable deed. Yet despite the billions of dollars that have been poured into breast cancer research, we are apparently no closer to the cure than we were before.
“Breast Cancer Awareness Month” was actually founded by AstraZeneca, a drug company that, by the way, produces and sells breast cancer drugs. The money that goes to breast cancer research ends up going to research organizations that research and develop new drugs, which are then patented and sold by pharmaceutical companies to breast cancer patients at exorbitant prices. For example, Afinitor, a new breast cancer drug approved in July, costs over $200 per pill. Come on, let’s be honest: pharmaceutical companies are hardly hurting for cash; it’s a highly profitable multi-billion-dollar industry. Your well-meaning donation or pink purchase just ends up lining their already-fat pockets.
For supporters of holistic therapies, the fact that these donations benefit pharmaceutical companies is problematic, as they focus solely on developing yet more drugs, pills and toxic treatments, while ignoring the potential of alternative therapies. Research for “the cure” still focuses on the same treatments that are not curing cancer: chemo, drugs and radiation.
Is it any wonder that they are getting no closer to the cure, when they just keep going back to the same old treatments that haven’t been working?
Oh, and the rest of that money? The money that does not go toward research? That either goes toward advertising and promoting the currently available treatments for breast cancer (i.e., the treatments that are not successfully curing cancer today: chemo, radiation and surgery), paying hefty executive salaries, advertising and promoting mammograms for early detection, or right back into the breast cancer marketing machine and the nebulous task of awareness-raising.
So much “for the cure.”
A few years ago, Facebook users might remember a viral campaign by Susan G. Komen that encouraged women to post the color of their bra as their status, with no context or explanation, apparently to “raise awareness” for breast cancer. While the deluge of color statuses inspired a few titillated giggles from people who knew of the campaign and felt “in on the joke,” what possible benefit could it have done for women actually suffering from cancer?
The only thing I felt more aware of was the contents of my friends’ laundry hampers. However, the apparent (but barely discernible) purpose of the campaign was to encourage women to get annual mammograms.
This is the main message of Breast Cancer Awareness Month: encouraging women to get yearly mammograms, and labeling early detection as the best way to combat breast cancer.
Women are being drilled and educated about the importance of mammograms, but mammograms are not a real solution to the breast cancer epidemic. Mammograms can’t prevent cancer, they simply alert doctors and patients to already-existing lumps and tumors. In some cases, mammograms can catch malignant tumors early, and stop the cancer before it spreads.
However, research has shown that this scenario is less common than you might think, and mammograms actually do little to increase the rate of cancer survival. Doctors are now suggesting that women shouldn’t begin getting yearly mammograms at age 40, as the Susan G. Komen Foundation suggests is necessary, that the age should be raised to 50, and women should only have mammograms half as often.
Many of lumps that mammograms detect are small, benign and unlikely to pose a future threat. False positives are common, and now breast cancer is often over-diagnosed. Women with benign lumps are pushed into unnecessary invasive treatments: given drugs or mastectomies for small tumors that had little risk of becoming malignant. Many of the cancer drugs they’re given are carcinogenic themselves, and lead to a higher risk of developing other types of cancer in the future!
The very procedure of having a mammogram done is problematic. Mammograms are a type of x-ray. Yet radiation is a known cause of cancer, and the more exposure to radiation people have, the higher the risk of cancer. So does it really make sense to have a yearly appointment to expose your breasts to radiation? Just last month, a study by BMJ indicated that radiation from mammograms increases the chances of breast cancer developing in women whose genes put them at a higher risk for the disease.
The other risk associated with mammograms is the fact that some studies have shown that mammograms can activate tumors and promote metastasis. One study in the International Journal of Health Services stated that the harsh squeezing of breast tissue during mammograms “may lead to distant and lethal spread of malignant cells by rupturing small blood vessels in or around small, as yet undetected breast cancers.”
There are other, safer ways to detect breast cancer. Thermography in particular is quite promising and non-toxic. Thermography uses infrared imaging to examine breast tissue, vascular changes and inflammation. They use no radiation, don’t squash the delicate breast tissue, and may even be able to detect irregularities earlier than mammograms. If a proliferation of blood vessels are seen, this can indicate the possibility of early stages of tumor formation, as tumors need a blood supply to feed them.
Thermograms do not offer a definitive diagnosis; only a biopsy will tell if there are malignant cancer cells present. However, thermography can alert women and their doctors to irregularities without health risks, so that women can minimize the need for invasive testing. If the results are suspicious, a woman can start applying therapies to turn this around while it is still at an early stage. Yet mammograms are the tests that women are pushed to undergo most frequently.
Yet for all the education and awareness being raised over certain breast cancer issues, there is a serious dearth of awareness of prevention. The problem with pushing early detection over prevention is that it treats breast cancer as an inevitability. The types of prevention encouraged can be somewhat extreme. Some women that have a family history of cancer but no sign of the disease are encouraged to have “preventive mastectomies.” They are encouraged to have their breast surgically removed, on the off chance that they might someday develop breast cancer.
This attitude seems to perpetuate the idea that all women are doomed to breast cancer and that only by catching it early enough can women’s lives be spared.
There are chemicals and environmental factors that are known to contribute to breast cancer that women can learn to avoid, to lower their risk of breast cancer. Why focus on detecting cancer early, when you can encourage women to make an effort to avoid getting breast cancer in the first place? As Charlotte Gerson once said:
So while we’re all raising awareness of breast cancer, why don’t we teach women to avoid chemicals that increase their risk of breast cancer, such as…
Hmmm. That’s strange. Why AREN’T they teaching women to avoid these toxic, carcinogenic products?
Oh, silly me. I should have known.
In Part II of this “Rethink Pink” series, I take a closer look at some of these carcinogenic pink ribbon products, as well as examining some of the larger cultural issues that “pink ribbon culture” brings up:
About the Author
Ally Bacaj is the Gerson Institute’s Communications Specialist. Ally manages the design and content of our website and writes, edits and collects contributions for our blog. She recently helped launch the Institute’s newest program, the Gerson Basics Live Stream. In her spare time, Ally enjoys thrifting, reading, correcting other people’s grammar and trying to learn to enjoy running (but is still unlikely to sign up for Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure anytime soon!).