I decided not to blog about the recent Susan G. Komen foundation/Planned Parenthood uproar as it was happening. I didn’t think I had anything really useful to add to the discussion.
I am, however, quite happy to participate in some of the conversation arising from the ashes of the scandal – a conversation about the way that the Komen organization and the pink ribbon campaign has taken the breast cancer cause way off track, because I think that affects all cancer patients.
It starts with money. There’s now a justified skepticism among consumers around the feel-good marketing that so many companies undertake by slapping a pink ribbon on their products. I think people are finally starting to understand that their money might be better spent on direct donations to cancer-related charities.
It’s not just about the money that’s undoubtedly wasted on “pink” products. The distortion arising from pink ribbon culture is just as much emotional and intellectual as it is economic. Pink ribbons are pretty. Breast cancer is not. Bracelets that say, “I Love Boobies” are (arguably) silly and fun. Breast cancer is not. Facebook campaigns that encourage women to post a cryptic status update about the color of their bras do not raise “awareness.” All of these things trivialize a devastating, life-threatening disease.
Pink ribbons aren’t all bad – they have been powerful tools. There was a time, thirty years ago, when newspapers wouldn’t publish stories about breast cancer, referring to it as “female” cancer instead. Thanks in large part to Betty Ford’s openness about her cancer treatment, and women who followed her example and encouraged a public conversation, that aversion is gone. Now, most people can talk about mammograms and breast reconstruction surgery without embarrassment. But taking away the embarrassment didn’t necessarily increase the understanding. The reality of breast cancer treatment can get lost in the pretty pink haze. Breast cancer chemo is pretty awful. Mastectomies can be horribly disfiguring. Reconstruction, and preparation for it, is a long and painful process; it isn’t just quick cosmetic surgery. And breast cancer still kills far too many women. We’re still a long way from a “cure.”
On top of that, the pervasiveness of pink has diverted the public’s attention away from other cancers. There’s a letter to the editor in today’s Washington Post that says what so many of us feel quite strongly: what about “my” cancer?
In a couple of weeks, it will be March, which is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. That finds me struggling to define what I want “awareness” to mean. It’s not good enough for me just to wear blue, or to plaster blue ribbons everywhere. I want people to understand what CRC is. I want them to know how to prevent it and how to recognize it. I want people to get over their embarrassment and talk about it. I know it’s a little easier to contemplate a mammogram than a colonoscopy. It’s a little more comfortable to talk about feeling a breast lump than it is to talk about seeing blood in bowel movements. But bodies are bodies, and they do things that aren’t always nice. I keep telling people who squirm at the prospect of a colonoscopy not to embarrass themselves to death.
And I want awareness to lead to action. That means encouraging people to consider changing their diets, to schedule colonoscopies, to talk to their doctors about possible symptoms. It means raising money for some specific purpose – to help families through the Blue Note Fund, or for charities that spend the bulk of their donations on research, not on administration and marketing. It means finding ways to volunteer my time to help other patients. Wearing blue – or pink, or red, or whatever color – is nice, but it’s not worth much if you don’t do something to back it up.
And, ultimately, what I’d really like to see is an end to the colored ribbons as a way of separating cancer patients from each other. I am not part of the pink sisterhood. But I would like to think that I have a pretty strong bond with my friend who is slogging through breast cancer treatment nevertheless. I would like to join forces with the women who are frustrated with pink, and work together to increase real “awareness” of all kinds of cancers, and to support research towards a cure for all of us.