Seeing Pink: Komen, Breast Cancer, and Women’s Health

Long before Susan G. Komen for the Cure entered its latest scandal, removing funding for breast screening to Planned Parenthood one day and restoring it days later, I wasn’t a fan of the pink ribbon.  Before their policy on and practice of not funding embryonic stem cell research came to light — again and again — I avoided the pink.  Why the aversion?

I’ve been a physician assistant in family practice for over sixteen years.   In those years, I’ve cared for many women with breast cancer and many more people with a family member with breast cancer.  I have sent women for screening mammograms according to the recommended protocol de jour. ( For women of normal risk, that’s every year starting at 40 per the American Cancer Society or every two years starting at 50 per the US Preventive Services Task Force. Komen advocates for the ACS protocol.)  I’ve taught self-breast exam when the recommendations advised it and stopped when that recommendation was removed, instead encouraging women to be familiar with their breasts and notify a health care provider of changes.  I’ve examined hundreds of breasts of all sizes and shapes.  I’ve sent many women to surgeons for biopsies and second opinions and explained troubling mammogram reports.

I care about breast cancer.  But I detest the pink.  Come October, when ribbons of pink appear everywhere, including on KFC chicken buckets and Panera bagels. (And neither deep-fried factory-farmed chicken or over-sweetened simple carbohydrates are known to prevent breast cancer.)  Pink M&Ms, dog leashes, earrings, and wrinkle lifting serum do not diagnose, treat, nor prevent breast cancer either.  Selling pink stuff we don’t need isn’t the solution, as it encourages the needless consumerism so rampant in America.  Some of these pink products  are potentially detrimental to us — being overweight or obese (from too many pink M&Ms and pink-ribboned KFC, perhaps) increases one’s chance of developing breast cancer, and it’s unknown if the ingredients in products such as Estee’s wrinkle serum are contributing to the problem.)  While I couldn’t find any hard statistics on it, I’d bet walking your dog with a pink ribbon studded leash has yet to save a single life.

I care about breasts. Women have breasts, and like the rest of the mammals, those breasts make milk for our babies.  It’s a good system, and it almost always works.  Breastfeeding for at least a year or two reduces a woman’s chance of breast cancer, even when done when wearing colors other than pink. I’ve been a La Leche League Leader for nearly ten years.  I’ve worked with hundreds of women and their babies, supporting their decision to breastfeed and trouble shooting with them when the process doesn’t go as planned.  I’ve also supported them when they decide not to nurse their babies.  Their breasts are, after all their breasts.

I care about empowerment and knowledge.  Here’s where Komen excelled when first formed in 1982.  Breasts just weren’t discussed, and breast cancer was something to whisper about rather than shout out.  Komen helped the words “breast cancer” become part of our vernacular and urged women to leave shame behind when approaching breast care.  That’s work that was for the good, and much of that was done before pink bagels and men’s ties with ribbons became available.  But it seems it’s time to switch focus, increasing expenditure on promising research (including embryonic stem cells).  Searching for causes should also be a top priority, but maintaining ties to corporations that manufacture and sell products that may contain carcinogens is likely a financial and political blockage to the Komen for the Cure.  There’s even a term for using customer emotions about breast cancer to sell products — pinkwashing. Playing on sympathies to buy products that are of dubious health benefit to support an organization that’s mission is to eradicate breast cancer gives me a headache.

And don’t get me started on the politics.  I’ll not wonder here about the causes behind Komen’s intent to remove funding for Planned Parenthood in an election year where the right is rife with anti-woman rhetoric garbed in religious language.  The backlash via social media marks a milestone in protest history and led to Komen’s reversal of the decision, at least for now.  Komen managed to irk the left and the right in less than a week, which may be a record of its own.

Pink isn’t the answer to ending breast cancer. If we truly care about breasts, breast cancer, women, and women’s health, we’ll think twice before we act.  We’ll research carefully where we send our donations and to what we commit our time.  For many, Komen will remain the voice of breast cancer.  Others, including myself, will lean towards organizations with less pink stuff and more science and action.  Vote for candidates that commit to funding medical research and who support the research needed to understand and treat a range of cancers, not just breast cancer.  The best moves yet?  Support healthcare for all that allows all people to access the preventive care and treatment they need, and work to decrease the inequities that lead our poorest to have less access to healthy foods, places to exercise, and exposure to carcinogens. Now that’s thinking I can embrace.

3 thoughts on “Seeing Pink: Komen, Breast Cancer, and Women’s Health

  1. I, too, was wary of pink ribbons and the Susan G. Komen Foundation prior to the recent controversy.

    Regarding the Susan G. Komen Foundation, one of my co-workers (who had at least two relatives who were livng with breast cancer) decided to do an SGK walk in the mid-2000s. If I recall correctly, it wasn’t a “raise $5 or $500, but come out, show your support, and have fun” event. There was a high minimum-entry fee, and if she hadn’t raised enough money, she would have had to pay the difference herself. After the SGK experience, she planned to donate her cancer-research money elsewhere in future years.

    As you know, women are far more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than breast cancer and all cancers combined. I’m not fond of the American Heart Association’s (sexist little) “Red Dress” campaign, but at least it keeps things statistically in perspective. I would worry more about breast cancer if it were in my maternal family history, but it’s not. Based on family history, cardiovascular disease is a MUCH greater risk, perhaps distantly followed by colon cancer.

    Having breast cancer is undoubtedly devastating. . .because one may die, NOT because one is “losing one’s femininity.” The only feminity I’ve ever possessed is strictly the earth-mother variety anyway. Losing an arm to cancer would be harrowing. Losing a leg, only slightly less so. Losing a breast when one is childfree by choice or years past childbearing? I expect this (for me) would be relatively minor.

    • Thanks for sharing. The femininity issue may be part of it for me, too, although I don’t know how I’d feel, honestly, if faced with the prospect of losing a breast. I’d put that in the large category of “I don’t know what I’d do or how I’d feed because I haven’t been there.”

      • My post on “Not Thinking Pink” from awhile back.

        My GP, a woman and a great doctor. nevertheless insisted on writing a prescription for prosthetics “so I would feel more feminine” after a double mastectomy. I felt just as feminine as I ever did, and had always hated bras anyway.

        And I wasn’t devastated – the cure rate is now 90-95%, so freaking out before treatment, or before treatment is apparently unsuccessful, is unwarranted. What was more difficult than two rounds of chemo, surgery, and radiation was wearing a wig to work and not telling anyone at work except my supervisor and direct reports (all male), because the prevailing attitude, as evidenced in an email soliciting contributions was that this was a “horrible disease,” and I really didn’t want to deal with constant inquiries, sympathy, etc.

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