Pink is the new black

Does "shopping for the cure" cheapen the reality of breast cancer?

Published October 10, 2005 1:00PM (EDT)

It's National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and we're awash in a sea of pink. Pink ribbons, pink wristbands, pink Cartier watches, pink makeup kits, pink Tic Tacs, a pink Delta airplane, pink nail polish, a pink Montegrappa Micra Pen, pink bouquets, pink tweezers, pink candles, pink jeweled key fobs, pink totes, pink shower gel, pink tea, pink moisturizer, pink Lean Cuisines, pink teddy bears, pink Waterford crystal, pink Post-its, pink M&Ms, pink sneakers, pink umbrellas, pink yogurt, pink golf balls, pink pencil sharpeners, and even pink toilet paper. That's right, wipe for the cure.

It seems as if every corporation with female customers has realized that pinking it up can be good for business. Take Avon, for example, the fairy godmother of pink events. On its Web site Avon claims that between 1992 and 2004 it donated $350 million for "medical research, access to treatment, screening, support services, and education." Three hundred and fifty million over 12 years is a lot of money, true, but let's remember that we're not talking about an anonymous donation. Avon scores a lot of pink P.R. points for its "breast cancer crusade," and the company's dedication to the cause is good for the bottom line, too. According to Breast Cancer Action, a grass-roots organization in San Francisco, Avon's 4-year-old Kiss Goodbye to Breast Cancer lipstick line actually drove a 6 percent growth in the sale of its lipstick units.

There is a particular irony in this corporate sponsorship. Many cosmetics contain parabens, estrogenic chemical preservatives that can disrupt normal hormone functions, and exposure to such external estrogens has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer. Another common ingredient in cosmetics is phthalates, which cause a broad range of birth defects and reproductive problems in laboratory animals. A recent study by researchers at the University of Missouri at Columbia found that prenatal exposure to some phthalates can disrupt normal male reproductive tract development. The link between environmental pollutants and breast cancer is also becoming clearer. When absorbed into the body, certain pesticides, plastics additives, and chemicals present in foods, household dust and air act like estrogen, possibly increasing the risk of breast cancer.

Given this, to some women the very idea of a corporate-sponsored breast cancer awareness month is dubious. Peggy Orenstein, author of "Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem and the Confidence Gap" and "Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed world," was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997 at age 35. She believes that by encouraging women to "Shop for the Cure," pink October cheapens the reality of breast cancer. "It provides people with the illusion of activism in the place of real action," she says. It also troubles Orenstein that so many of the October events focus on awareness and screening, rather than on the causes of breast cancer. "When corporations dominate the giving, they drive the direction of the research and right now, they routinely steer it away from investigating potential environmental links to cancer," she says. "Focusing on the environment wouldn't serve the interests of Big Pink companies like Chevron, whose Bay Area oil refinery has had notorious toxic accidents."

In November 2001, Barbara Ehrenreich published an article in Harper's, "Welcome to Cancerland," which expressed her umbrage at the "cult of pink kitsch." The teddy bears, the pink journals complete with crayons where a breast cancer patient was supposed to "express different moods, different thoughts," all these were part of what Ehrenreich viewed as a "general chorus of sentimentality and good cheer" in which everyone is a survivor until the moment she isn't, and breast cancer is "a chance for creative self-transformation -- a makeover opportunity." Ehrenreich wrote about the vast culture of women with breast cancer, their families and friends as a kind of religion complete with its own salvation and redemption: a cure. October is, then, breast cancer's high holy days, when the pink "amulets and talismans" of the faith are most prevalent, readily available even to the unconverted.

I absolutely sympathize with Orenstein's and Ehrenreich's resistance to the cult of pink. I'm fairly certain that if were diagnosed with breast cancer I wouldn't gloss my lips with Stila pink tint or blush my cheeks with Remy's Hint of Cure. I wouldn't Sip a Republic of Tea for the Cure or have a Wacoal bra Fit for the Cure. Like Orenstein, I find the notion of a vast commercial enterprise devoted to breast cancer very unsettling, and like Ehrenreich, I resent the implication that an ill woman, or any woman, should be treated like a child.

My husband's much-loved aunt died last year, at 56 years old, after battling breast cancer since 1996. My friend Karen evacuated her home in New Orleans right after her second chemotherapy treatment. Another friend, a mother of four, was diagnosed at 37, the same age as her mother was when she died of the disease. My friend Ginny is two years post-surgery and chemo. My friend Sandra, diagnosed with Stage III cancer this past year, is doing well on Herceptin and other chemotherapy drugs. We all have these stories. We all know too many people with the disease.

And some of them resist the pink, while others embrace it. Ginny and Sandra find solace in the events of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the walks, hikes and gatherings. Sandra, Ginny and I have known each other for 10 years. We're part of a circle of women -- there are 13 of us -- who e-mail regularly. Last weekend Karen, another woman from the group, flew from Rochester, N.Y., to New York City to do the Avon Breast Cancer Walk with Ginny. Clare, another e-mail buddy, walked alongside them. Particularly meaningful to my friends was that part of the funds raised by the New York Avon walk went to the organization God's Love We Deliver, to provide meals for women undergoing breast cancer treatments. "I know research is so important, but I also know how important a support structure is," Ginny told me. "While I was in treatment, friends brought my family meals for 30 days. I wanted to help people without the same kind of network."

Twenty-five of Sandra's friends joined her for a hike up Mount Tamalpais, in Northern California, on Sept. 17, to raise money for the Breast Cancer Fund. A neighbor whom Sandra had barely known before the hike organized a team in her honor. Sandra hiked with her friends and felt nurtured, supported and loved. "Never in my life would I have pictured myself hiking on that mountain because I had breast cancer," she told me. "It was an amazing day, and I was incredibly moved. I tear up just thinking about it."

My cynicism, the suspicion I feel at the rivers of corporate pink, fades when I look at the photograph of Sandra on Mt. Tam, of Ginny and Karen, standing together in their pink and white Avon T-shirts. Their smiles are so huge and lovely; they are glowing.

Breast Cancer Action, which doesn't accept funding from the government or the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries, does not totally reject Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Rather, its "Think Before You Pink" campaign encourages consumers to ask questions before they reach into their wallets and "shop for a cure." "Ask [companies] to reveal how much money actually goes to breast cancer, how the funds are being raised, who gets the money, and what programs are being supported," says a BCA e-mail newsletter. For example, programs focusing on "breast cancer awareness" may not be all that helpful since the disease is widely publicized already. After 21 October Breast Cancer Awareness months, the problem is not awareness. It's the number of cancer cases -- 211,240 new cases of invasive breast cancer, and 40,410 deaths expected in the U.S. in 2005, according to the American Cancer Society -- and the number of people who have to fight the disease without health insurance. "Ultimately, we encourage people to do what is most meaningful for them, but a truly meaningful decision has to be well-informed," says Barbara Brenner, executive director of BCA. "If shopping for pink ribbon products was truly the path to a cure, we'd have solved the breast cancer problem by now."

According to the American Cancer Society, a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every 1.9 minutes, and over the course of her life she has a 1 in 7 chance of developing the disease. Seventy percent of women who get the disease have no risk factors. Mammograms miss 25-38 percent of breast cancers in pre-menopausal women, and result in up to 12 percent false positives. These numbers are disturbing. New therapies, like the drugs that have so far been working for my friend Sandra, are being developed all the time. But that's not enough. Nor is grilling chicken on a pink George Foreman grill or making a cake with a pink Kitchenaid mixer. We must insist that our government do something about the toxicity of our environment. We must insist that corporations do more than just write checks and take advantage of the advertising opportunity of pink October. We must ask hard questions, open our wallets, and, sure, we might as well go ahead and put on our running shoes -- whatever it takes to keep the women around us healthy, strong and alive.

By Ayelet Waldman

Ayelet Waldman is the author of "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits," "Daughter's Keeper" and of the Mommy-Track mystery series. She lives in Berkeley, Calif., with her husband, Michael Chabon, and their four children.

MORE FROM Ayelet Waldman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Breast Cancer Health Motherhood