October’s arrival brings scarecrows and (cringe) a profusion of pink ribbons and products to remind us it is (teeth gritting) Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The effort is designed to provide community education about breast cancer risk factors, promote early detection and raise funds for research. These are laudable goals. So you may wonder why I, as a breast cancer survivor, cringe every October.
First, the goals are misleading.
Risk factors that include being female, aging, family history and lifestyle only predict 20 to 30 percent of breast cancers. Except for tobacco and hormone replacement therapy, toxins and chemicals linked to breast cancer are ignored. This omission suggests a serious conflict as many of these toxins and chemicals are produced by corporations that donate large sums to Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For example, Estée Lauder Cosmetics, which founded Breast Cancer Awareness Month and created the pink ribbon campaign, produces beauty products containing paraben, which has been linked to breast cancer.
Many people don’t realize that while early detection does benefit most women, it doesn’t guarantee that breast cancer, when found, will be in an early stage. Unfortunately, even women at low risk who have regular mammograms can be diagnosed with metastatic (late stage) breast cancer. Metastatic means the breast cancer has spread to other organs (bone, lungs, brain, liver) with no treatment option other than palliative care.
Only a portion of the billions of dollars raised over the past two decades during Breast Cancer Awareness Month are spent on research or patient services. Further, the focus of research is diagnosis and treatment instead of breast cancer prevention, which receives only 3 to 5 percent of all research dollars (including federal grants). Surprised? You shouldn’t be.
Many corporations and pharmaceutical companies that give large donations to Breast Cancer Awareness Month also profit from breast cancer-related technology and drugs they themselves produce. An inconvenient truth is that breast cancer is a lucrative industry with annual medical costs predicted to exceed $20 billion by 2020.
Second, Breast Cancer Awareness Month’s packaging is just wrong. Branding breast cancer with the color pink, because it is comforting, non-threatening and feminine, conveys the wrong message to women with breast cancer and the public.
Breast cancer is a terrible disease, and its treatment is disfiguring, barbaric and painful. Dressing cancer up in pink ribbons won’t change that. Treatment, which includes surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, can last months, years, or may even never end. Treatment side effects are nasty, with long-term consequences to physical, mental, emotional, and financial well-being. There is nothing comforting, nonthreatening or feminine about breast cancer.
This year more than 250,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and over 40,000 will die. Today 3.1 million women in the United States have a history of breast cancer. This includes women who are getting or have completed treatment, and 150,000 women who are receiving palliative care for metastatic breast cancer. When I think of these women and women who risk cancer in their future including my daughter and granddaughters, I see and feel red.
So what can be done? The only way to eliminate breast cancer is to prevent it. More pressure needs to be applied to charities, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies to force them to focus on preventing breast cancer rather than continuing to profit from its treatment. Add your voice to activist groups such as Breast Cancer Action's “Think Before You Pink” that are trying hold these organizations accountable.
Be informed and ask questions. Watch “Pink Ribbons Inc.,” a highly rated documentary on the dark side of the breast cancer industry.
If you donate, thank you, but make sure your dollars are spent wisely on areas that interest you: research, support services, or education and public awareness. Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org) is a good resource.
Laurie Mileur, PhD, RD, is a registered dietitian who has worked in health care for more than 35 years. She is a member of the Healthcare Advocacy Committee for the Cambria Community Healthcare District. Her mother and grandmother died from metastatic breast cancer; Laurie and her sister, Jan, are survivors (13 years and counting).