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29 responses to “Pinkwashing cancer – Pink Ribbons, Inc. looks at capitalising on hope”

  1. Fine

    I’ve always felt very suspicious of this campaign. I note that the doco was in the feature length competition at IDFA (International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam), which is as prestigious as you can get, so it’s probably going to be good.

  2. Down and Out of Sài Gòn
  3. CMMC

    15 years ago I was working in the warehouse of a large computer company when a truckload of Red Noses turned up.

    “Something the contract-driver was doing to help out the charity”, I was told.

    After the fifth truckload I became suspicious of just how charitable the motives of my supervisor and the driver were.

    “Not in my job description”, I told my supervisor, leaving it to him to manage what turned out to be a yearly event.

  4. Chris

    And what about all the non-pinkified cancers? By dominating the cancer fundraising landscape, pink ribbons divert attention and thus donations (and the research/screening/treatment those donations provide) from other cancers which affect just as many people..

    Is there evidence that this is true? It may be for example that some people would simply not donate at all to cancer related fundraising without these campaigns and instead direct their charity money elsewhere (or not to charities). Have non pinkified fundraising efforts seen a drop in the amount of money they have received or just a smaller piece of a larger pie?

  5. akn

    That looks like a knock down analysis to me. There are numerous environmental agents that provoke cancer to which we have routine exposure in everyday urban environments. Polychlorinated biphenyl is one such.

    Most insidious though is the tendency to reward ‘survivors’ and ignore those who don’t because, well, some people are just losers, aren’t they? In the US access to health care has a significant impact on sorting the winners from losers. Same here except that class determinants are amplified by the city/bush divide in terms of health dollar allocation. Prevention, as ever, appears to be running a three legged race tied as it is to the need to isolate which environmental agents cause which cancers.

    Public health initiatives against cancer have so far taken the form of screening and education rather than looking at the causes. Medicine always individualises the problem by locating the source of the problem within the body of the bearer of the problem. Hence the inability to get research funding for finding carcinogens.

    Easy to fix if policy determines that a product be deemed to be non-toxic before release. This would involve extensive trials, of course, and be unprofitable for big chem. In the meantime it is best not to even think about sorting out the winners and losers by postcode, labour market profile, educational standard.

    Very interesting article.

  6. Tim

    Hi tigtog: Ever read this piece by Barbara Ehrenreich? From 2001


  7. Fine

    Yes, I intensely dislike the rhetoric that forms around cancer of ‘fighting’ the disease. It does seem to stigmatise the losers; the ones that have ‘given up’.

    A good friend of mine died of motor neurone disease and one of the most distressing things about it for her and her family were the people insisting that she ‘fight’ and that she look at alternative therapies etc. Motor Neurone is an illness which kills you and she wanted to use her time and energy to enjoy her life in the years she had left. There were people who got annoyed with her for not ‘fighting’.

    I think we have a squeamishness about certain body parts, especially to do with the nether regions. I’m sure I saw a comedy show about people looking for patrons to support cancer of the anus. No luck there.

  8. faustusnotes

    akn, I don’t think this is true:

    Public health initiatives against cancer have so far taken the form of screening and education rather than looking at the causes.

    There’s a whole field of environmental health and it looks at exactly things like PCBs (or you wouldn’t have known to mention them). It’s the reason we have strict rules about the constituents of our PET bottles (which, incidentally, don’t apply in some developing nations), food additives, etc. Think of public health campaigns against smoking, vaccines for HPV, the shift from aerial to indoor spraying for malaria, drug approval processes … these are all aimed at preventing cancer (amongst other things).

    The screening and education initiatives are public health intiatives to prevent cancer mortality, not cancer incidence.

    There’s another interesting side to the debate on breast screening, which is a new book just published by a Very Serious Professor that claims breast screening is not effective and points to some strong pressures to maintain an industry that is no longer viable.

  9. su

    Komen have apparently lobbied against bills to support research into environmental causes of Breast cancer, against Medicaid for uninsured women who required treatment for breast cancer and right now are lobbying against another bill that will focus funding on prevention in the first instance and prevention of metastasis. Daily Kos via Violet Socks

    They don’t want to have to get off this gravy train, clearly.

  10. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    There were people who got annoyed with her for not ‘fighting’.

    That sort of attitude gets me furious, Fine, and if anyone had got annoyed at my dad for similar reasons I may have gotten obscenely sweary at them. My father passed away from melanoma five years ago, and decided to pass his time away it the way he wanted: rereading all of his favourite books and listening to all of his favourite CDs in his bedroom. One alternative treatment was tried and found wanting, so he reconciled himself to the inevitable, and died as calmly as one could. Lots of palliative care, but no “fighting”. An approach supported by everybody in the family.

    Another acquaintance of mine has months to live, also from cancer. I don’t know what the origin is, but it seems to have destroyed his stomach. He runs a book publishing. He will spend a little bit of time handing over his company to the printers. This will tire him out, perhaps reducing his lifespan a little; I can understand people being concerned about him working too hard, and expressing it. But it’s his work and his company, and I would be very angry if anyone tried to pressure him to drop the work prematurely. I just don’t want him to be in pain.

    I’m sorry that you lost a friend, but I hope that she had a “good” death like my father did: in the best way she could, given the circumstances, and surrounded by family and friends.

    I hope you don’t take offence, Fine, but I’m also sorry that people don’t know how to STFU.

  11. Fine

    Of course I’m not offended. My father also recently died, probably of asbestosis. The reason I said probably is that he refused to have a biopsy, much less treatment. His attitude was literally; “I’m 88. How long am I supposed to live?” He has a good death at home; never went into hospital, had very little pain, did it on is own terms as much as he could. And happily no-one in the family tried to argue with him. Thank the goddess for the palliative care nurses. Brilliant people.

  12. Guy

    The use of the colour and the emotional element is such a powerful simplifier – buying into the colour allows people to feel they are doing good without thinking too much about it. The symbolism is so powerful that we tend not to scratch beneath the surface and discover what we are actually supporting.

    The McGrath Foundation is arguably a case in point – it seems to be doing an excellent job on the awareness front and in raising funds for dedicated nurses, but on the other hand it doesn’t appear that they involve themselves much with respect to medical research into the issue. It’s not always clear what these organisations do and don’t put their funds towards.

  13. fmark

    Thanks for the post TT. I don’t have much to add, except to point [email protected] to the example of public health initiatives against tobacco, and to furiously agree with Fine about the tremendously wonderful work of palliative carers.

  14. akn

    Yes ok Faustnotes. Quite right too, what you say. I stand corrected and happily so.

    Cancer and death go together as discussion topics. For more than twenty years I earned my living as an RN in all sorts ‘o places including palliative care units and oncology wards in which time I witnessed and participated in some of the most beautiful and delicate human behaviour imaginable.

    As an example – I attended a woman who had terminal fungating bilateral breast cancer. The flesh was highly offensive in many ways but every evening her husband did her dressings with very great tenderness and impeccable skill under my hands off tutelage.

    Dying well is a real achievement and the mark of an accomplished human being.

  15. Chris

    tigtog @ 7 – Although its clear there is a disparity in how the different cancers are researched, I didn’t see clear evidence in Rob’s post or the comments that there is a diversion of funds from one type of cancer to another. For example there’s the water bottle company that sells pink capped bottles with permission in return for (I think) a fixed donation.

    If they didn’t run that sort of charitable campaign, they might instead run something similar but raising money for say children’s sports, or heart research. Whilst that would make cancer research funding more equitable, it would decrease the total funding for cancer research and the other cancer research would not benefit at all.

  16. James T

    The pink caps are on the bottles of Mt Franklin, which is part of Coca-Cola Amatil. Where to find out how their fundraising divvies up, I’ve no idea, but that’s where to look.

  17. Ann O'Dyne

    I do commend Fine for the two comments I read.

    Breasts of course, are adorable, and they are everywhere. Easy to market.
    Avon sell pink ribbon teaspoons, when for all we know, cosmetics could be the cause, but having said that – what IF 100% of all monies were given to research which then successfully discovered without doubt that say, ‘smoking causes breast cancer’.
    How many would immediately quit? I know to many highly intelligent people who smoke in the face of all the evidence, so if we don’t act on the lung cause, we won’t act on the breast cause.

  18. dexitroboper

    According to Orac at Pharyngula

    The largest risk factors for breast cancer are age and genetics, with lesser contributions from delaying childbearing and not breast feeding. Environmental contributions to breast cancer have been looked for and in general have been found to be pretty low.

  19. Mercurius

    @22 — the “it’s genetics and fertility, not the environment” crowd still can’t explain why women who migrate from under-developed countries (low breast cancer rates) to highly developed countries (high breast cancer rates) then go on to develop breast cancers at the same rate as the women who have lived in those highly-developed countries since birth….that’s not genetics, now, is it??…and it happens regardless of whether not they’ve had children…

    Cancer became the 20th century disease everywhere that modern living took hold…partly due to the fact that people stopped dying of many other causes, so, well, something’s gotta get you; but a great deal promoted by carcinogens in the modern milieu…carcinogens that we have made considerable progress in identifying and eliminating in many cases…but with breast cancer, oh nooooo, it’s all down to whether the wimmins have done their duty and had babies, innit?? Nothing to see here….

  20. faustusnotes

    Mercurius: can those effects be separated from the effect of screening?

  21. Roger Jones

    Thanks for this. Can’t remember where I first saw articles on the corporatisation of grief for profit, but it’s obscene.
    It’s best to use the reminder (pink, daffodils, whatever) to donate straight to the organisation doing the hard yards. Do not buy stuff where a tiny proportion of the profit is earmarked for a good cause. The more I read about the psychology of selling, the less I am inclined to support those who profit by it.

  22. Chris

    tigtog @ 19 – compassion fatigue is real, but that still doesn’t mean that pink campaigns are taking away money from other cancer fundraising. Are the pink campaigns the real competitors for charity dollars or are other high profile fundraising campaigns – eg heart foundation, kids charities, disaster relief etc. If the pink campaigns disappear will people continue to donate to cancer research or will they just spend their money elsewhere to a different high profile campaign?

    However: that water bottle company – is their donation proportional no matter what? Or is it capped at a certain total? Where does the company make this information available to their consumers?

    If I remember correctly (and I could be misremembering) its a percentage of the sale price up to a cap. Information is public, but not publicised as such. Probably room for an organisation like Choice to collate how all the different charity based promotions work…

  23. patrickg

    Very Serious Professor that claims breast screening is not effective and points to some strong pressures to maintain an industry that is no longer viable.

    Well, that’s not quite what was argued: Really it was more along the lines that the mandatory and large age limit screening in the UK is not an effective use. It was never suggested that all screening, per se, is a waste.

  24. foolsrus

    @mercurious, I thought the reason for high rates of breast cancer in industrialised countries had more to do with diet than carcinogens. Japan and Korea are highly industrialised and have lower rates of breast cancer than the west.


    Check out the study with aflatoxin and rats too.

    Also, the other big risk factor for breast cancer is life-time exposure to certain hormones, which can be greatly influenced by the age of menarche. The west has a signifiantly lower age (and declining) than many of the low breast-cancer countries.

  25. Col

    “…the solidarity of women, forged through the women’s movement, is being exploited.”
    I think it’s more correct to say corporations are exploiting the obsession many women have with their femaleness. Politicians and their spin doctors do the same time and time again to win the “women’s” vote, as do advertisers to sell their products to women. If some women think that being a woman makes them “special”, then women’s diseases must also be “special”, requiring of course special recognition.