Pink passion


If it’s October, the color must be pink.

It would be hard to think of a public awareness campaign that has been more successful than the signature pink ribbon of breast cancer. From burly football players to the cartoon artists of the Sunday comics section, everyone is doing the pink thing. The pink ribbon has become one of the most iconic symbols in American culture.

Clearly we’ve come a long way from the era 40 or 50 years ago when breast cancer was rarely spoken of in public and women faced stark choices in their treatment options. But is there such a thing as overdoing the pink message? An increasingly loud chorus of dissent suggests many people are feeling oversaturated, jaded, cynical and resentful.

And the critics certainly have plenty of ammunition. For starters, there’s the blatant commercialism. I’ve learned to get used to the pink foil lids on Yoplait’s yogurt containers, but the fresh mushrooms I saw last week at the store, packaged in a pink carton with a pink-ribbon logo on the label, seemed rather over the top. Does enticing consumers to spend money on pink-themed products actually help promote awareness of breast cancer, or does it mainly line someone’s corporate pockets? How much more awareness do we need, anyway? Does the sale of pinked-up trinkets, T-shirts and other merchandise benefit research? Does it directly support programs and services for screening or treatment for breast cancer? Does it do anything for women who are uninsured or underserved?

Consumers would do well to ask questions before buying into the pink-ribbon marketing, urges Think Before You Pink, a San Francisco-based organization that calls on companies to be more transparent and more accountable in their fund-raising on behalf of breast cancer. In other words, buying pink doesn’t automatically mean your money is well spent.

It’s not just about the hucksterism, though, or the girly feel-good pinkness that threatens to trivialize what is, after all, a serious health issue. The pink tsunami is skewing our perceptions of risk, disease and the populations that are deserving of our attention, writes Mary Elizabeth Williams in an article for Salon magazine titled “The Smug Morality of Breast Cancer Month”:

For over 25 years now, thanks to the efforts of organizations like the Susan G. Komen Foundation  and the Avon Foundation for Women, one of the most pervasive — and deadliest — diseases to strike women has become an important topic for research, detection and public awareness. No doubt all that advocacy has played a part in the sharp decline in breast cancer rates over the past decade, an encouraging sign for all of us who possess breasts — and for our daughters. But as breast cancer awareness becomes an increasingly pervasive branding opportunity, perhaps it’s time to consider what the glut of pink says about our attitudes about the meritocracy of disease, and the ways in which we dispense compassion.

Plenty of other deadly diseases – HIV, alcoholism, melanoma, throat cancer – affect thousands of Americans yet don’t receive the same focus as breast cancer, perhaps because it’s easy to blame these people for their disease, Williams writes. She wonders: “What if we had even a measure of the same generous, unconditional support we give this month to women with breast cancer for those living with less morally unambiguous conditions? What if October wasn’t just pink? Imagine how much suffering we could eliminate.”

The message that the pink-ribbon promoting has perhaps gone too far is not an easy one to convey. Many people simply don’t want to hear it. When a commenter at a NESN sports blog said he thought it was “a little overboard” for NFL football players to wear pink this month, he was told to “shut up.”

Still, there seems to be a groundswell of discussion at a thoughtful level we haven’t really seen before. The New York Times reflected Monday on “pink ribbon fatigue,” observing that in spite of all the awareness and visibility, the battle against breast cancer hasn’t progressed to the degree we think it has. Guest columnist Dr. Barron Lerner writes:

Over 40,000 women still die from breast cancer annually in the United States, and strategies for preventing the disease have received inadequate attention and funding.

It is great to celebrate one’s survivorship from breast cancer, but it would be better to not have to be a survivor in the first place.

A number of readers responded with comments about their own pink ribbon fatigue – comments that were frank in a way we might not have seen even five years ago. One person wrote that she boycotts pink products “because I feel they are nothing more than a marketing gimmick. Companies are playing on the emotion of the ‘pink’ in order to get people to buy their products, which is a sleazy manipulation tactic and belittles those who do have cancer – of all kinds.”

Someone else wrote, “It’s to the point where I want to say to these perpetrators of the Pink Ribbon culture, “What? Breast cancer? Never heard of it before! Glad you are making me AWARE!”

From another commenter who works for a breast cancer research project:

Sometimes I experience what I call pink ribbon guilt. People pour money into breast cancer organizations, snapping up every processed food and made-in-China tchotchke they come across. All the while the cancers that kill people faster and with more certainty get very little attention in popular media, and therefore get very little funding. The worst pink-ribbon-guilt moment was hearing a melanoma patient relate the story of how she couldn’t get a chair massage at her chemo appointment [because] they were for breast cancer patients only.

It’s ironic that in the span of little more than a generation, we’ve gone from speaking in whispers about breast cancer to creating a din that’s so loud and so chaotic, it’s in danger of stampeding off the cliff.

Passion is an incredible force. It can move mountains. When it’s harnessed in the right way it can change how we think and perceive and behave about health. It would be a bitter injustice if the pink ribbon turned into an empty symbol, and all because we didn’t know how to say “enough.”

Photo: Associated Press

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