Pink Ribbon, Incorporated
Yes, says Samantha King, a professor of health studies from Queens University in Ontario, who in 2006 published a scathing critique of the pink ribbon movement called Pink Ribbon, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy. Professor King points out that ten times as many women die each year from heart disease as die from breast cancer; also, more women get skin cancer than breast cancer, and lung cancer is the number one killer among cancers that strike women. This implies that perhaps there has been too much attention focused on breast cancer alone by those who claim to be concerned with the overall state of women’s health.
Professor King also believes the pink ribbon campaign has created a false sense of security with respect to breast cancer itself. While there has been some reduction in the death rate in recent years, that does not change the fact that an individual woman’s lifetime chances of having breast cancer has increased from about 1 in 20 in 1960 to 1 in 7 today. Like many, Professor King is struck by the focus of the anti-breast cancer campaign on screening and developing new drug treatments, as opposed to prevention and the search for the underlying reasons why the rate of breast cancer has gone up so much in modern times. Many suspect that environmental chemical usage is the main culprit in the explosion of cancer rates, and that perhaps this is not a part of the story that the corporate world funding current research efforts wants to be told in its entirety.
Pink ribbons: the good and the bad
While it may be true that a disproportionate amount of attention has been paid to breast cancer in comparison to other diseases, more than anything this shows that anti-breast cancer activists have done their job well. The pink ribbon campaign has proven to be an inspired use of symbolism, and those trying to raise awareness about other diseases could learn much from this public health success.
However, it is hard not to be concerned about an approach to fighting disease that puts so much emphasis on shopping. Being a good consumer and buying pink every October cannot be confused with really making an effort to do something about a significant social problem. The incredible increase in the rate of breast cancer among American women over the past 50 years is deeply disturbing, and a lot of probing questions need to be asked about our consumer culture and lifestyle, and about the role that environmental contamination traceable to an over reliance on chemicals may be playing in the epidemic of breast cancer, and of all cancers. As Samantha King illustrates in her very important book on the operations of the “breast cancer industry” as a whole, it is not at all clear that this is a part of the story corporate breast cancer philanthropists want to be told.