Breast cancer fundraising: it’s not pink, it’s not pretty

publication date: Jan 9, 2012
author/source: Janet Gadeski
Harsh words, spoken by a woman who's lived a harsh reality - "Reducing the most serious health crisis of my life to a pink teddy bear is offensive." That blunt assessment comes from writer and social critic Barbara Ehrenrich in the National Film Board documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Pink Ribbons is difficult to watch. Director Léa Pool shows us thousands of women in pink wigs, pink shirts, pink jewellery. They're pumped. They're running, jumping, riding and rowing for "The Cure" (for a disease that isn't actually named). The optimism and sense of triumph are heady, even giddy - despite the pile of 12,000 empty disposable drink bottles proudly highlighted by one corporate representative as proof of his company's event support.

Sponsoring research while causing disease

But Pool also shows us the un-pink, un-pretty, frankly hypocritical part of the breast cancer fundraising story.
  • Research into pharmaceutical treatments comes from drug companies focused on developing a marketable product. They also make hugely profitable products like pesticides and bovine growth hormone that are risk factors for breast cancer.
  • Susan G. Komen for the Cure and other charities allow corporations to hitch unrelated, even harmful products to the breast cancer bandwagon ("pinkwashing"). KFC partnered with Komen to contribute 50 cents for every pink chicken bucket it sold. Estee Lauder markets pink cosmetics, yet uses cancer-causing chemicals in those products and others.
  • Despite billions of dollars raised through pink events and products, there is no cure and no comprehensive report of outcomes. Komen and supporting corporations tout the amount of money raised and contributed, not the resulting discoveries.
  • In the 1940s, one in 22 American women was at risk for breast cancer. Now, after years of pink fundraising and pharmaceutically-focused research, the ratio is one in eight.
Pink ribbon began with idea theft

Charlotte Haley was one of the first people to distribute a ribbon as a means of raising awareness for breast cancer. In the 1990s, she began handing out peach-coloured ribbons with cards that read, "The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion. Only 5% goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon." Her aim was a grassroots movement to lobby for research funding.

Soon Self magazine and Estée Lauder asked to use Haley's ribbon, but she refused, feeling they were too commercial. As she explains in the film, they consulted their lawyers, who advised them to change the ribbon colour and go ahead. A marketing juggernaut was born - one that to this day, according to activists Barbara A. Brenner and Janet Collins, smothers Haley's original intent to focus on cancer prevention.

Saying "no" to friends

While it's easy to avoid and even mock pink Mustangs, pink makeup cases, pink KitchenAid mixers and pink toilet paper, it's not so easy to turn down the plea of a friend who's walking, running or rowing for "The Cure." In the film, Komen founding CEO Nancy Brinker lauds the empowerment of cancer survivors and bereaved relatives who complete long events and raise big money. It's hard to disagree with her as you watch event footage.

Yet the most heartbreaking moments arise in the contrast between the frankness of stage 4 cancer patients (deemed incurable) and the rah-rah superficiality of pink events. There is no narrator telling viewers what to think. The most genuine optimism resounds in Brenner's closing statement: "It [the extent of individual support] shows how motivated women are. We have enormous power if we would just use it."

See this film. It opens the weekend of February 3 at 40 AMC and rep theatre screens across Canada. See it soon - commercial cinemas aren't long-term hosts to documentaries, even when they're as remarkable as Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Get the book that inspired the movie.

Editor's note: Cancer fundraising is a multi-faceted issue. Send your responses and views to me by email or contact me on Twitter, @JanetGadeski. Hilborn will publish the most thoughtful perspectives in future articles.

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