The Problems with Pinktober

It’s October—the leaves are turning yellow, porch ornaments are coming up pumpkin orange, the first frost is sparkling silver, and everywhere I turn the sight of pink ribbons affronts my sensibilities. The annual pink ribbon extravaganza, surely one of the most successful marketing campaigns in history, has millions of Americans walking, running, racing and selling merchandise “for the cure.” Having spent the first half of my career studying religious rituals, I can’t help but think that many of the ribbon bearers see their little scraps of pink as an amulet or a charm, a means of warding off an enemy that makes us all feel impotent. If we just wear or sell enough pink ribbons during the month of October, we bargain with the cancer gods that maybe we’ll be safe from breast cancer for the coming year.

Maybe I’m a cynic or an agnostic, but as a means of averting breast cancer I’d rather put my money on cleaning up toxic chemicals from the environment than on adding a bunch of pink ribbons to our November trash piles. When my mother became ill with and eventually died of breast cancer in 1971, no one talked about it—not even her close friends were present to offer aid or comfort. Yet today, as we paint the town pink, I am concerned that we have come to see breast cancer as a relatively normal part of the female life course: puberty, pregnancy and childbirth, followed by menopause and breast cancer. Pushing against this cultural tide, I feel a need to yell: Breast cancer is not normal. Nor is it pinkly feminine or cute. The rise in rates of breast cancer over the past century is a palpable sign that something is wrong with our world.

America loves winners, and we have come to regard women who are diagnosed with but do not die from breast cancer as heroic fighters. Those women who die are hidden, lying somewhere outside of the victory circle—“victims” in a culture that at best pities and at worst blames victims for their own misfortunes. It feels absurd to have to say this, but it needs to be said: Breast cancer can’t be cured by the optimism or will power or athleticism or fighting spirits or strength of character. Breast cancer should not be treated as a challenge or as a measure of one’s moral fiber. And it should never, ever be treated as a commodity.

In her Psychology Today column about how breast cancer culture undermines women’s health, Gayle A. Sulik draws attention to some disturbing implications of the ubiquitous pink ribbon. First, pink ribbon marketing, like all “cause marketing,” primarily benefits the company. Second, as a result of cause marketing, people actually give less to charities. And third, pink ribbon and other cause marketing can mask conflicts of interest, like when companies promote the idea of cancer research but also manufacture, disseminate, or sell products that contain toxic or carcinogenic ingredients. Over the past few years, the failure of the pink ribbon movement was brought home to many of us when the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, the most visible promoter of pink racing for the cure, announced that it would no longer fund breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood, the healthcare home for millions of young and low-wage women. This decision, believed to reflect the Komen’s Foundations’ capitulation to anti-choice advocates, was reversed when donations to the organization plummeted in response.

Victory laps in races for the cure, together with the ubiquitous pink ribbons, may lead people to believe that far greater strides have been made in preventing and treating breast cancer than have actually been made. The reality is that promoting “awareness” may not be helping end breast cancer at all. A 2014 article published in the New England Journal of Medicine reports that data shows no evidence that routine mammography screening of women at average risk saves lives. A high-quality study made public by the Swiss Medical Board, “acknowledged that systematic mammography screening might prevent about one death attributed to breast cancer for every 1000 women screened, even though there was no evidence to suggest that overall mortality was affected.”

Breast Cancer Action, a national nonprofit organization calling for transparency in breast cancer research, treatment, and education, has these harsh words to say:

“While corporations [such as manufacturers of mammography equipment] have made billions off the disease, progress in breast cancer treatment, prevention, survival, and inequities has not been forthcoming. Three million women in the U.S. are living with breast cancer. Up to one-third of all breast cancers will metastasize, even when found in the early stages. Black women are still 40% more likely to die of breast cancer than white women. And each year, 40,000 women die of breast cancer.”

We can do better.

an american airlines jet covered in a pink ribbon

Despite the lovely ribbon, toxic pollutants from plane exhaust kill thousands of people annually. (Photo credit: Allen Watkin)

While spending on breast cancer detection and treatment continues to increase, funding for prevention and for learning about the causes of breast cancer is far less marketable. This year, the legislature in my home state of Massachusetts failed to fund research on potential carcinogenic impacts of chemical exposure despite clear findings that there are specific communities in Massachusetts with particularly high rates of breast cancer. According to reports, the Massachusetts Senate budget did not include a $500,000 request to fund water quality and public health research specifically requested by the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition to study exposure to toxic chemicals in drinking water and homes in Central Massachusetts and on Cape Cod.

Today, when I walked past the Massachusetts State House on my way to work and saw pink ribbons everywhere, women’s health pioneer Barbara Ehrenreich’s words came to mind. Writing about her own experiences with breast cancer, Ehrenreich wrote, “What sustained me through the ‘treatments’ is a purifying rage, a resolve, framed in the sleepless nights of chemotherapy, to see the last polluter, along with say, the last smug health insurance operator, strangled with the last pink ribbon.” Forty years after my mother’s death, there are days when I can comfort myself with the thought that she never had to put up with pink teddy bears, pink running shoes, or pink drill bits used for fracking in the name of “finishing the fight against breast cancer.” There are many more days when I share Ehrenreich’s rage at the billion dollar American cancer industry for using its power and money to draw more women into the breast cancer fold through mammography and breast cancer “awareness” rather than to study and address the causes of breast cancer. But during the month that has come to be known as “Pinktober,” I mostly mourn the years my mother missed and the cruel triumphalism surrounding the cult of brave survivors.

In honor and memory of my mother, Bernice C. Starr.

Related Reading: Enough With the Boobs, What About Saving Women’s Lives?

by Susan Sered
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Susan Sered, author of Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responibility, is a sociology professor at Suffolk University. She also writes on her personal blog.

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10 Comments Have Been Posted

so true

Thanks for putting to words what many think but are afraid or unsure how to say.

I'd never actually thought

I'd never actually thought about it that way before, but I think it's interesting how you suggest that the pink banner can shroud large corporation's ethical downfalls. And probably in many ways very true!

Pink Ribbon

Just this weekend my friend and I were moving forward on the development of a lovely body creme developed by a beautiful young girl who died of cancer. We could not use the name "Memories of XXXXX" because that is a trademark. We could not use the pink ribbon because it's also a trademark. Actually, we could not use XXXXX's formula, sworn to secrecy, because you have to disclose. I guess it's ironic that we pledged to donate a portion of profits to cancer research. Too bad the big guys got there before us.

The deep corruption of the pink ribbon cult

Good article by Sered.

The most important fact everyone needs to know immediately is that the war on cancer, led by the medical industry and the pink ribbon machine, is mainly a big fraud.

One of the numerous ways the pink ribbon organizations have been misguiding women about the value of mammogram screening is by "educating" (=manipulating, misleading) the public with deceptive cancer survival statistics and the suppression of the known causes of breast cancer ( see: "The Mammogram Myth" by Rolf Hefti - more at ).

There are very few women who have awareness of the real facts about breast cancer and mammography.

Pink drill bits? Thanks,

<p><em>Pink drill bits</em>? Thanks, Susan for your insightful, though disturbing article. And without even mentioning the outrageous executive salaries. I've been concerned about "cause marketing" for years, though I never had a label for it.&nbsp; </p>

We are being used

Thank you for this beautifully written article. We need more like this. Pink ribbon marketing exploits our good natures, our fears, our sense of helplessness and, even a certain laziness towards our health. Instead of asking hard questions about cancer, we thoughtlessly buy pink chicken and hope someone else will take care of the problem. It's NOT easy trying to take charge of your own health. It's an overwhelming, lifelong journey, full of mistakes and compromises, but we can't let the corporations and our totally broken healthcare system do the heavy-lifting.

A thought-provoking link suggesting that cancer is "a disease of civilization":


If we still want to help with breast cancer, what is the best way to do so? Do you recommend donating directly to nonprofits or hospitals that perform or fund in breast cancer research?

pink ribbons

Pink ribbons have been associated with breast cancer as a form of support and awareness since the early 1990's similar to red ribbons representing AIDS awareness. When companies use it in their advertisement I imagine they are also donating a bunch of money, I have never researched it to learn a dollar amount. However equally important is the the high profile that is gives to breast cancer and its prevalance. The money it raises is important whatever the sum it is one more dollar to support research, testing, or financial support of women requiring help while they are in treatment. Everything can be done better, everyone can dig deeper and donate independently (have all of you reading this ) but I am certain not everything is as negative as some would like us to believe. Yes the Pink Ribbon Campaign has been successful and it started people talking about breast cancer which is something that want done in the1970's. (Then again we know any type of cancer wasn't really discussed openly in the 1970s). Remember early detection saves lives. II am also all for cleaning up the environment so I appreciate you support of that and will not rail against it. Peace

Corporate charity & the dubious value of "raising awareness"

Re "When companies use it in their advertisement I imagine they are also donating a bunch of money, I have never researched it to learn a dollar amount": That assumption you're making about the corporate donations is exactly what the "pink-washed" companies are banking on; they figure consumers will buy their product rather than the competitors' because it makes the consumers feel good about themselves. They also hope consumers will think more favorably of the company. You don't need to do "research" to see how misleading this is, though; the next time you buy a yogurt (or drill bit) sporting a pink/red/green/whatever "cause" ribbon, just read the fine print on the label. In almost every case, the company donates a miniscule amount per item bought, up to a pitifully low cap, and only if the consumer takes some additional step like mailing something in or filling something out online.
Re the fact that breast cancer is something we now talk about: I agree that it's extremely valuable to be able to have frank, open discussions about health care. What's essential to doing that, however, isn't "raising awareness." It's de-stigmatization. Women's health, sexual health, and reproductive health have all been compromised because people are squeamish and judgmental rather than focused on the fact that these are serious health issues. Perhaps the Komen Foundation did some good in this regard at its inception, but now that we've arrived at a point where it's pushing "Save the Ta-Ta's" t-shirts and "I love boobies" bracelets, it's undermining the message it was ostensibly founded to promote: women's health is something to be taken seriously.

Cancer and women's deaths

I so appreciate the honesty of this article. As a lifetime non-smoker diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in my early 40s, I am continually shocked and dismayed by the fact that lung cancer kills more women each year than breast cancer, yet due to the stigma, there is virtually no money for research which is reflected in the dismal outcomes. Breast cancer is not the only risk to women's health yet it often dominates in terms of attention and funding, at the detriment of other issues.

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