Pink, Politics, and Cancer

Earlier this year there was considerable brouhaha when the Susan G. Komen foundation withdrew funding used to provide mammograms and related services from Planned Parenthood. After only a few days of immense pressure, the organisation rescinded the decision, but the situation highlighted something interesting for me: Many people are not aware that Komen is a deeply flawed organisation which has been heavily criticised by breast cancer activists, other breast cancer advocacy groups, and other people concerned with cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.

Komen is the original pinkwasher, the juggernaut of the breast cancer industry, and I say industry advisedly, because it is big money. Thanks to Komen, the West is slathered in pink every October, and thanks to Komen, scores of people buy these products, thinking they are having a direct impact on breast cancer research and development. The organization’s deeper agenda lies below the surface, despite its claims of transparency.

People seemed surprised the group was advancing such an anti-choice agenda with the funding withdrawal, despite the fact that executives had openly bragged about wanting to put an end to Planned Parenthood. The group’s decision, of course, involved funding used only for breast cancer care in low-income and minority communities—the same communities the organisation itself has identified as most at risk from breast cancer and related complications—and had nothing to do with other services offered by Planned Parenthood[1. Incidentally, abortion services make up about 3% of what Planned Parenthood does.]. It highlighted the cynicism with which Komen does business, because it is not a charity. It is a business.

Komen hasn’t expressed much interest in identifying environmental and social factors associated with breast cancer, let alone taking action on them. This is perhaps not surprising, because some of the very breast cancer ‘awareness’ products it sells contain environmental toxins, like BPA, that have been positively linked with breast cancer in a number of studies. Studies which Komen hasn’t endorsed even though most other breast cancer organisations have.

People rely on the organisation as a source of information about breast cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, but it doesn’t provide the whole picture, which puts patients in real danger. Refusing to recognise the basic science other breast cancer organisations have already accepted and taken action on does not reflect well on an organisation that claims to want to fight breast cancer. Komen may be able to admit that low-income populations are more at risk of breast cancer, but it can’t seem to connect the dots on the subject, to articulate the complex social factors here, like the fact that low-income people are more likely to live in areas with environmental contamination, and to be exposed to toxins in the workplace.

The organisation is also being infamous for being extremely aggressive with other charities. Rather than working cooperatively on a critical cause, Komen has filed cease and desist letters against organisations using terms like ‘for the cure,’ which Komen has trademarked. It uses donor funds to pursue these legal cases, hurting other charities working on cancer and related causes. It seems more interested in protecting a brand image and the merchandise it sells than it does in fighting breast cancer; in other words, Komen behaves a lot like a for-profit corporation.

Gayle L. Sulik, linked above, points out that:

In the fundraising endeavor, Komen has redefined cure to mean a whole range of activities that do not involve the eradication of breast cancer. In this capacity Komen justifies spending roughly 25 percent of its program budget on research; encourages donors and patrons to light buildings, bridges, pyramids, and statues in pink when these monies could be spent on research; forms partnerships with corporations, some of whose products play a role in the development of chronic illnesses, such as cancer; and attempts to solidify its place as the self-proclaimed leader of a disparate and nonconsensual breast cancer movement.

Breast cancer is a big industry with a lot of money at stake and many people, including myself, have criticised pinkwashing and the way that breast cancer messaging can actually undermine the cause. Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Cancerland‘ essay is probably the most famous piece on the subject, and it’s an excellent read if you aren’t familiar with it—a journey into the world of breast cancer written by a woman who navigated the medical and social establishment with breast cancer, and remembers the roots of the movement to turn breast cancer into an important social cause, rather than something only to be discussed behind locked doors.

I write about Komen’s massive public relations failure months after the fact because I don’t want people to forget, and on the Internet, memories tend to be short. Komen was a flawed organisation long before it made the very unwise decision to withdraw mammogram and breast education support from Planned Parenthood with absolutely no media strategy; a friend of mind joked that we ‘hated Komen before it was cool.’

And I want to make sure that people do not stop here. The problem with Komen doesn’t just lie in this one decision. It lies in a deep and tangled history that makes the organisation a very bad cause to support; Komen appears less interested in health and breast cancer prevention and education than it is in spending money to harass other charities, in engaging in pointless ‘awareness’ campaigns. We are past the point where awareness is necessary. People are aware of breast cancer and it is no longer a deeply taboo subject.

And donors need to know where their money is actually going. In the case of Komen, their funds are not being well used.

We need to focus on medical research to improve the quality of patient care. And we need to start talking about clear environmental and social links with the development of breast cancer, because these are issues that are not going away, no matter how much Komen may want to bury its head in the sand. Other organisations fighting breast cancer are already tackling issues like pollution, toxins in consumer products, and other known linkages with cancer—why isn’t Komen?

Oh, right, because it would jeopardise relationships with corporate sponsors. The same companies making those products.