An ounce of breast cancer prevention is worth a pound of pink ribbons
During the month of October, pink ribbons were everywhere reminding us of Breast Cancer Awareness — “get your mammogram” — and encouraging us to race, drive, cook or shop for the cure. In her book Pretty in Pink, Sandy M. Fernandez tells the story of 68-year-old Charlotte Haley, whose daughter, sister and grandmother had all had breast cancer. In the early 1990s, Charlotte began making peach ribbons by hand at home. She distributed them at supermarkets with cards reading: “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 the word spread, executives from Estée Lauder and Self magazine requested permission to use her ribbon. Haley refused, fearing they would become “too commercial.” But lawyers advised the companies to go ahead and use the ribbon, just choose a different color. Soon the peach ribbon was history, and the pink ribbon became a worldwide symbol for breast cancer. Today, breast cancer is the darling of corporate America. Attaching a pink ribbon to a product or ad has become the surest way for a corporation to boost its image with female consumers and look like a player in the effort to “wipe out breast cancer.” This “pinking” leads to the appearance of caring, but says little about solutions. Breast cancer kills about 46,000 women in the U.S. each year. On average, each of these women loses 20 years from her normal life expectancy. Breast cancer rates have been rising steadily. Through sly marketing, we are led to believe that detection is prevention, and treatment is cure. Treatment is important, but having a five-year remission is not being cured. And the treatment is torture — “slash, burn and poison.” This is a public health crisis, and very little is being done about primary prevention. Why? The purpose of a corporation is to sell products and maximize profits, and prevention doesn’t help the bottom line. Major cancer organizations are not immune to the corporate influence. The Susan G. Komen Foundation, well-known for the “Race for the Cure,” attracts millions of people and extraordinary amounts of money. Consider a few members of Komen’s “Million Dollar Council.” BMW and Ford are prominent partners, while toxic fumes from car exhaust are linked to breast cancer. Yoplait, a division of General Mills, uses products with bovine growth hormone (BGH). BGH has also been linked to increased breast cancer. Occidental Chemical, of Love Canal infamy, donates 4,000 square feet of office space for Komen’s Dallas Headquarters. There is strong evidence that our increased exposure to toxic chemicals produced by Occidental and other chemical firms contributes to the epidemic rates of breast and other cancers. The Toxic Links Coalition’s Judy Brady writes of Komen, “There’s no talk about prevention, except, in terms of lifestyle, your diet for instance. No talk about ways to grow food more safely. No talk about how to curb industrial carcinogens. No talk about contaminated water …” Komen Foundation focuses women on finding a medical cure for breast cancer, and away from environmental causes, problems of the uninsured and the political influence of corporations. The Komen Foundation helped block a meaningful Patients Bill of Rights, supporting instead what is dubbed the “HMO Bill of Rights.” The Komen Foundation owns stock in several pharmaceutical companies and in General Electric. General Electric makes nuclear reactors and mammography equipment, and it has one of the highest number of Superfund toxic waste sites in the country. Komen’s founder, Nancy G. Brinker, and her husband, Norman, are longtime major donors to pollution-friendly George W. Bush. Nancy Brinker is listed as a “Bush Pioneer” for raising over $100,000 in 2000, and owns a half-million dollars worth of stock in U.S. Oncology, a chain of for-profit cancer treatment centers. Cancer affects us all, and a political system that encourages a thriving “cancer industry” is just wrong. Every two and a half minutes another woman is told she has breast cancer. We are not winning this war, and we need to change our tactics. As watchdog group Breast Cancer Action urges, Think Before You Pink. Think beyond the pink ribbons and look at the big picture. There is an old saying: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. There can be no true breast cancer cure until we address the cause. Stefanie Miller represents Indiana Alliance for Democracy and is a member of Breast Cancer Action.