Friday, October 3, 2014


Since 1985, October has been Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It was established by the American Cancer Society and a now defunct pharmaceutical company that was absorbed by drug behemoth, AstraZeneca (thanks, Wikipedia). The "awareness" portion of the message has morphed into a marketing juggernaut, with so many pink ribbon products and charitable events claiming to donate money to breast cancer research, that critics have dubbed the month "Pinktober", and refer to the countless marketing campaigns as "pinkwashing". To use a popular euphemism, you can't swing a dead cat without seeing pink this month. I wish no harm, of course, to cats or any animals.

In years past, I did my share of pinking. I wore ribbons, I bought products, and I donated to charities. It felt like the right thing to do. Now that I am actually a victim of breast cancer, my attitude has changed. This is a familiar tune, because last week I wrote about how Joan Lunden's People cover attempted to make breast cancer seem like it's all about going bald. Turns out, the same holds true for all that pink stuff out there. A very small percentage of all the money spent on pink ribbon products, and raised by charities, goes to actual research and education. Moreover, many of the most high-profile marketing campaigns send the wrong message: Women are practically clubbed over their heads and lead to mammography machines by these campaigns, without any focus on what causes breast cancer, or what improvements can be made to current treatments. While it is true that regular screening is important in many cases, it is the misguided message of prevention that gets the most attention, not adequate medical care, or the mysteries of the disease science isn't anywhere near close to cracking.

Joan Lunden's diagnosis has had a polarizing effect on Pinktober. On October 2, the Huffington Post published a blog by a woman living with metastatic breast cancer who was recruited by NBC to appear on the Today show to kick off Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The one requirement was that she had to be bald, as this seems to now be the universal signifier of breast cancer. The producers of the show were looking for women rendered bald by chemotherapy to gather on the set in pink solidarity.

The author was told that she couldn't appear because the current photo she sent in showed her with short hair, not with a perfectly smooth bald dome, a la Joan, who has become the poster child for women in "warrior mode" fighting the disease. She and others wrote outraged e-mails to NBC, telling the clueless producers that not everyone loses their hair during cancer treatments. In fact, many of the drugs used to treat metastatic cancer do not cause any hair loss, something the knob-heads over at NBC didn't even think about. Like I said last week, this is all about appearances, not the reality of living with cancer and what the treatments actually do to you physically, emotionally, financially, and spiritually. In the end, NBC relented and allowed women who were not perfectly bald to appear in the segment. But, the damage has been done.

Charity is supposed to be a virtue. To help is a mitzvah, or a good deed. I still believe in good deeds, but I don't believe in buying yogurt, shoes, cosmetics, ribbons, and pins in the name of charity. Nor do I believe in putting a happy face on something as horrific as cancer. Like the woman who wrote the blog said, you might not want a side of metastatic cancer to go with your morning coffee, but we don't want to romanticize breast cancer by showing images of plucky bald women swathed in pink to make it seem like it's an invitation to a debutante ball. Our outrage about pinkwashing is just the beginning. We need truth and action. Thirty years of awareness has run its course.



  1. Excellent post. You hit many good points.

    I actually hate all the pink stuff.......ever since I found out that donations to breast cancer were being siphoned away by high-paid executives and marketing people. Less than 15% goes to research.

    I have a rare cancer that has no color, no ribbons, scant research, and little money.

    Best thoughts to you, Nava.