Getting Pink’d: Komen, Planned Parenthood and the problem with “Big Breast Cancer”

Like the rest of the internet, I was appalled by Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s spineless withdrawal of grants to Planned Parenthood for mammography and other early breast cancer detection services. (After an avalanche of cyber-anger, Komen ultimately buckled and reinstated the funds.) An estimated one in five American women has received top-notch care from Planned Parenthood, and I am one of them. I echo the concern raised by other bloggers and publications that Komen’s decision placed politics above women’s health, and thus ran contrary to their supposed mission. I also fully support the dignity, agency and right to health care of any woman facing a medical obstacle – it is just as important to me that women are able to access abortions as Breast Cancer treatment.

Komen’s decision has been attributed widely to its conservative, anti-choice VP Karen Handel. This is hardly implausible – in fact, Komen has also recently cut funding for stem cell research, and lobbied against the Affordable Care Act, which have clear and dire repercussions for millions of women living with breast cancer. Still, despite Komen’s obviously GOP-friendly track record, I can’t help but wonder whether these destructive decisions go beyond politics. The problem is largely systemic, and I suspect that it goes beyond Komen. The vast majority of us care deeply about combating breast cancer, and many of us are willing to pony up our time and money to do it. However, I can’t help but feel that “Breast Cancer Awareness” as its own endpoint has reached the point of cultural saturation. If “awareness” continues to be a paramount goal of large breast cancer charities, millions of women will be hurt as a result.

Much has been written about the “pink-washing” phenomenon and cause-related marketing that reaches its apex with Breast Cancer Awareness Month every October. Businesses enjoy a practical pink bonanza – practically any item is available in pink or stamped with a pink ribbon, and it is not always easy to discern a product’s relationship to breast cancer, or where the money is going. (Lean Cuisine, for example, once included a pink ribbon on its box, but no proceeds from the sale of the meal went to a breast cancer charity.) In more egregious examples, some companies may even have contributed to the Cancer epidemic through their supposed activism – Avon released lipstick as part of a breast cancer promotion, which were later found to contain compounds perhaps linked to cancer tissue. But, is pink fatigue mere cynicism? Many dismiss criticisms of cause-related marketing by arguing that the greater good is being served, and that anything that helps the fight against breast cancer is justifiable. I agree with them that it would be – but it simply does not logically follow that an inundation of awareness is eternally positively correlated with progress against the disease.

The term ‘awareness,’ to begin with, connotes a state of being. There aren’t exactly nuanced gradations of awareness. Indeed, a certain amount of breast cancer awareness did have to be generated decades ago, but the vast majority of women today do get mammograms. Breast cancer attracts more money per patient than any other cancer. I certainly don’t mean to imply that breast cancer is no longer a problem – hundreds of thousands are diagnosed each year. I am saying that awareness campaigns have succeeded – we are aware. Patients, their families and advocates, legislators, and breast cancer organizations have done a tremendous job of thrusting breast cancer into public consciousness – so why are such massive amounts of breast cancer nonprofits’ budgets – 54% of Komen’s program expenses in 2011, – still allocated toward education and awareness? This is the root of the problem – breast cancer awareness campaigns have become so successful that organizations depend on them. They rely on corporate partners, and people who buy all of the pink stuff. As a result, awareness has superseded actual research and treatment. (Only 23% of Komen’s program spending in 2011 was on research.) For nonprofits courting donations, an ‘education’ program strongly resembles advertisement.

But what if massive awareness advertising spending is offset by a pool of research cash that is still larger than it was before? (That 23% spent on research is still a cool $75 million.) Does that legitimize KFC slapping Komen’s name on a pink fried chicken bucket? No – it doesn’t. The immense pressure to continue to build lucrative partnerships will only increase the percentage of funds reinvested into “awareness,” and these corporate partnerships have the dangerous effect of tying the destiny of breast cancer research and treatment to the interests of large business. No matter how many research dollars a breast cancer fund has to grant, the economic incentives to be safe, uncontroversial and corporation-friendly are too high – and, all too often, in direct conflict with the interests of breast cancer patients.

The effects of this problem are already evident at Komen. Beyond the defunding of Planned Parenthood and stem cell research related to breast cancer, their lobbying against the Affordable Care Act denies the real problem of breast cancer inequities. Despite its usual presentation as a disease that strikes everyone equally, disadvantaged women of color are significantly more likely to die of the disease because of a lack of affordable access to care. That, by the way, is not a problem that a mammogram can solve, despite the near dogmatic deference to mammography as our greatest weapon in the fight against breast cancer.

Furthermore, Komen has thus far refused to fund any environmental research into toxins that cause breast cancer, despite the fact that toxins reside in fatty tissue (like boobs!) and have been linked to cancer in other studies – this is almost certainly due to their partnerships with toxin-producers like BMW, Ford and Yoplait. Additionally, the conservative bias against innovation scientific research is often bemoaned in academic circles – projects more deeply rooted in conventional knowledge are more likely to gain the confidence of funding sources, and it is probably safe to say that corporate donors prefer their philanthropy to come back with positive and measurable results. Furthermore, Komen has aggressively pursued lawsuits against other breast cancer organizations that use the phrase ‘for the cure,’ in an instance of potentially harmful defense of branding. This is especially true given the fact that the lack of coordination between breast cancer organizations has led to inefficient and duplicated research, suggesting that distinguishing oneself in the cut-throat breast cancer market has very real consequences in the fight against a devastating disease.

Non-profit organizations aren’t perfect (how can they be? One even hired me,) but they are ultimately necessary. I think all of us really do care about making strides in the fight against breast cancer, which has surely impacted every one of us. Given our shared goals, can we please stop acting as if “awareness” is a self-contained action of value? Awareness is not a rational actor – people are. I hope that I see a bit less pink from now on, and that breast cancer organizations are led and supported by people making decisions for the right reasons, in the best interests of those they are supposed to be fighting for.

 

About Natalie Shure

literature, life and latte lady

8 Responses to “Getting Pink’d: Komen, Planned Parenthood and the problem with “Big Breast Cancer””

  1. Lots of good points raised here. I was appalled when I learned how much money Komen spends fighting other non-profits (organizations and initiatives) in court for use of the phrase “for the cure.” Seriously?! It’s all for the SAME CAUSE. People are trying to SAVE LIVES. Why fight over the wording? Throwing away money that was raised/donated to find a cure. It’s ridiculous.

  2. Would it be so difficult to focus all the hype on research instead of merely awareness? Or to gear it to treatment after the awareness has sent a woman for a mammogram and the diagnosis is made? I believe companies would still hop on the bandwagon if their product said a portion of the price went to breast cancer research or treatment. Why do I think this would not be an issue if more men suffered from breast cancer?

  3. It would be interesting to find out what other organizations and sources produce in terms of funding for research. Is it possible that these organizations that principally fund awareness are only a part of the Big Brest Cancer picture? I saw that the National Cancer Institute at the NIH alone spent $631 million on research in 2010 (http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/NCI/research-funding).
    Also, I would say that awareness is probably an ongoing process. People are busy and medical screenings are usually time consuming and often unpleasant (colonoscopy, or endoscopy. I can’t speak personally to mammograms). I would argue that “awareness” includes not just alerting people to the increased risk of cancer after a certain age, but also giving them a regular reminder of the importance of making time for screenings. Our society has a very short attention span and too much to do on a daily basis, which I think explains at least some of long term focus on awareness.
    Natalie, your post was good food for thought. Checking up on charitable non-profits and asking how each dollar is spent is an important question to raise, as we know there is always the possibility of waste or misuse. No cause or organization should ever be above a healthy degree of scrutiny.

    • Doug, thanks for the comment – you bring up some important points.
      As one of the biggest breast cancer charities as well as (I would argue) the biggest proponent and perpetrator of “pink marketing,” I thought that Komen made a great case study of the problem of obsessing over ‘awareness.’ However, it is worth noting that other organizations spend similarly. The National Breast Cancer Fund, Inc. spends 48% of its programming budget on education, and only 9% on research (http://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/How-To-Help/Donate-Online.aspx.) The United Breast Cancer Fund looks worse – a whopping 40% is spent on fundraising, with an additional 27% spent on education and awareness (http://www.ubcf.info/assets/2009%20Annual%20Report%20BBB.pdf). The problem obviously goes way beyond Komen – pink peddling is lucrative, and it is effecting the work that these organizations support and do.
      As for NIH – the National Cancer Institute indeed spends hundreds of millions on research each year, but to compare them to nonprofit organizations like Komen is improper. NCI is basically a pile of federal funds doled out to fund research grants, so of course they’d spend oodles on research. It is also worth mentioning that at least some of their funds go to organizations (Komen, for example,) that then control a smaller slice of the grants, which means that at least some of those $631 million bucks are subject to the same issues that I have discussed.
      Your point about awareness is a good one – it’s definitely true that even if we’re aware of something intellectually, it can be tough to make time to do it. And there is something to your argument, because there is a spike in mammograms around October, presumably because people’s memories are jogged by Breast Cancer Awareness Month. (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110408124303.htm) So you’re right, and I agree that to a degree, it is important to make sure that breast cancer remains in the public consciousness. That said, I certainly don’t think that exhaustive marketing and massive program expenditures over real research is the right way to do that.

  4. Fantastically written and well-supported with your links. I whole-heartedly agree with your assessments. The part about conservative sources of funding sticking with supporting conventional knowledge research makes the scientist in me want to punch people in the head. Apparently, the scientist is violent.

  5. This is really interesting– I’ve been hearing some iffy things about them for a while, but I didn’t realize the problem was so big. Based on the research you did, which other foundations would be a better place for our money/support?

    • Thanks Andrea! I didn’t actually realize how big the problem was until I started to research either. I also hadn’t considered awareness itself as being anything inherently damaging, until I started to read about how awareness and corporate support affects research and program budgets.

      In my research, the best organization out there is Breast Cancer Action (bcaction.org/.) They are a feminist organization concerned especially with systemic issues in breast cancer, and they focus strongly on socioeconomic disparities in the disease as well as lobbying and activism to address issues like environmental toxins linked to breast cancer, access to care, and less toxic and damaging treatment options that face insurmountable obstacles between inception and use because of the influence of big pharm and insufficient research funding for smaller-scale clinical trials. That said, the BCA is more focused on quality of life and systemic inadequacy than research, and that is pretty clearly stated in their mission.

      If you are interested in supporting scientific research, I would lean toward a smaller organization. You are basically cutting the middle man – large organizations that fund research basically just award grants to those who apply for them (smaller organizations, hospitals, universities, etc.) Most research hospitals and medical schools have their hands in cancer research, and I am pretty sure that most accept donations.

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  1. Breast Cancer Causes Aren | Healing of Cancer - 2012/02/06

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