Diary of Unknown Symptoms

Mystery of the Internal Vibration

Entry for October 18, 2006


Wendy Mesley’s investigative report on Breast Cancer had a huge effect on me and my attitude towards the actual root cause of illness and disease. I’m sick of hearing about how a cure is just around the corner… October is Breast Cancer month and it’s not just me who shares this opinion. Running for a cure is a waste of time. Run for the cause and I would donate everytime.

In the paper this week, a flyer contained a two page spread of items coloured pink with a portion of the proceeds going towards Breast cancer research. Matresses, blenders, flying pans!!?? This is all too much.

Are we getting pinkwashed?
Commercialization of breast cancer cause has overshadowed the search for a cure, author argues
Oct. 6, 2006. 01:00 AM
When I began researching the widespread public interest in fundraising for breast cancer 10 years ago, I was convinced that this was a fad that would soon diminish.

Like the brightly coloured silicone wristbands that swept in and out of our lives last year, the pink ribbon, I predicted, would quickly lose its lustre. It probably goes without saying that I could not have been more wrong.

As Breast Cancer Awareness Month begins, Canadians are once again confronted with a barrage of advertisements promoting merchandise with a breast cancer theme.

Frozen dinners, fishing tackle, popcorn, kitchen mixers, and running shoes are just some of the products on offer this year. For each purchase, sponsoring corporations promise a small donation toward the fight against the disease.

What’s more, consumers can now pay for their purchases with the new breast cancer quarter only the second coloured coin to be produced by the Royal Canadian Mint and the first to be devoted to a specific disease.

And those who wished to open their lungs, as well as their wallets, joined the 170,000 Canadians on Sunday’s CIBC Run for the Cure.

Public concern about a disease that kills more than 5,000 Canadian women and men each year is not in itself surprising. But the fact breast cancer has become a marketer’s dream, or that survivors of the disease proudly declare their identity as survivors by sporting bright pink T-shirts to distinguish themselves from other Run for the Cure participants, would have been unimaginable for much of the 20th century.

During that time, women with the disease were objects of stigma and a positive diagnosis was viewed as an individual tragedy best dealt with privately and in isolation.

One of the few formal mechanisms of support available was the Canadian Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery program, modelled on a service founded by New Yorker Therese Lasser in 1952.

Although Reach to Recovery was based on the then radical idea that women who had experienced breast cancer could provide a special kind of emotional support for women newly in recovery, certain topics such as family relationships, doctors, and the mastectomy scar itself were off limits for discussion.

Instead, volunteers were supposed to convince women who had undergone a mastectomy that they did not have a handicap, but, in the words of breast cancer scholar Lisa Cartwright, “a condition from which they can recover given the right attitude, clothes, and a prosthesis.”

Although Reach to Recovery remains to this day heavily focused on cosmetic counselling and women’s private struggles with the disease, broader social attitudes toward breast cancer began to change in the latter decades of the 20th century.

The development of the women’s health movement in the 1970s lay important groundwork for specific issues that breast cancer activists would address in the decades to come.

Heightened political activism dedicated to changing surgical practices and increasing funding for breast cancer research in the 1980s and 1990s, coincided with the emergence of large, well-funded organizations, such as the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, devoted to the struggle against the disease.

These shifts, together with the emergence of mammography as a routine aspect of women’s health care, placed breast cancer squarely in the public eye.

No longer “victims” or “patients” women with breast cancer began to describe themselves as “survivors” and the disease itself came to be more commonly understood as an enriching and affirming experience.

In some respects, this clearly marks a change for the better: women who are in a position to take advantage of the optimism and camaraderie of survivor culture are likely to find that it aids in their recovery.

Unfortunately, the new image of breast cancer has brought with it a slew of other problems.

The cheerfulness and consumer-oriented character of breast cancer survivor culture can be enormously alienating to women who do not have the financial means or networks of social support to participate in it, not to mention unintentionally working to denigrate those who have “failed” to survive.

It also has the effect, as American author Barbara Ehrenreich argues, of transforming the disease into a rite of passage, rather than an injustice to struggle against.

This particular problem has been magnified considerably by corporate interest in the disease. Businesses looking to sell more products to female consumers have been quick to latch onto to changing attitudes toward breast cancer, and the pink ribbon industry that has emerged as a result is deeply dependent upon a positive image of the disease.

Sickness and death do not sell, but images of survivors who are uniformly youthful, ultrafeminine, immaculately groomed, radiant with health, and seemingly at peace with the world, do.

The effect of breast cancer marketing campaigns is to erase from public consciousness the fact that incidence rates remain stubbornly high and newly diagnosed women face essentially the same options as surgery, radiation, chemotherapy than they did 40 years ago.

That mortality rates have been declining slightly since the early 1990s offers little comfort to the estimated 22,000 Canadian women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006.

In terms of prevention, the only new choices are pills like tamoxifen which, while effective in reducing the risk of breast cancer recurrence, also brings with it serious side effects including increased risk for uterine cancer and surgery (in the form of prophylatic mastectomies) more drastic than that available to women who already have the disease.

Corporations are not alone in promoting an overly optimistic account of the struggle against the disease, however. It is quite possible to attend, as I have done, numerous splashy fundraising events and to come away with the impression that breast cancer is a disease from which people no longer die.

The large breast cancer foundations have also discovered that upbeat messages result in more devoted individual fundraisers and more generous corporate sponsors.

People often point to the good work that breast cancer campaigns perform in raising “awareness” and argue that regardless of the accompanying messages, pink ribbon products and 5k runs raise large amounts of money for a good cause.

But this position raises its own set of questions: What exactly are we being asked to gain awareness of? And how is the money being spent? For those campaigns and events that venture into specifics, awareness usually means preaching the benefits of early detection through mammograms.

Although this approach might prompt people to discover if they already have breast cancer, this selective brand of awareness asks individuals to take personal responsibility for fending off the disease, while ignoring tougher questions related to what might be done to prevent it in the first place. And to overlook the limitations of mammography as a tool in the fight against breast cancer. Mammography is not a preventive technology, as its proponents often claim.

Some researchers say the small decreases in breast cancer deaths in recent years are better explained by the widespread use of tamoxifen and other new chemotherapy treatments than mammography.

As for the funds raised, contrary to claims commonly made about the great difference a minor purchase can make, breast cancer marketing often makes relatively small sums of money for research.

Take for example the nationwide breast cancer promotion undertaken by Yoplait, the yogurt company, last year. For every Yoplait Source yogurt purchased by a consumer, Ultima Foods, which owns the licence to produce the yogurt in Canada, promised to donate 10 cents to the Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation. But the offer runs for just eight weeks, ending Oct. 15, which means that a consumer would have had to buy and then consume the equivalent of three cartons of yogurt a day during that period to raise just $16.80 for the cause.

Of course it could be argued that as long as lots of people across the country are diligently buying their yogurts, it wouldn\’t matter if each individual raised only, say $5. But the donations are capped at $80,000. This means that if and when the maximum donation is reached, consumers are no longer contributing to the struggle against the disease with their purchases.

By tying their good intentions to marketing strategies and bottom lines, companies inadvertently exploit people’s generosity. The promotion, says Diane Jubinville, director of consumer service for Ultima Foods, “gives visibility to the cause.”

It didn’t lead to an increase in yogurt sales, but it’s allowing women to “be aware of breast cancer and fight against it. We have given almost a quarter of a million dollars (over three years) to the cause,” she says.

The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation raises 16.5 per cent of its funds, or $3.4 million last year, through corporate support. Barb Bryson, the foundation’s media manager says, “Pink ribbon products offer consumers an everyday purchase choice to buy something they need and contribute, however small the gesture, to doing something about breast cancer … all at little to no cost to the foundation.

“The fact that there are so many corporations focused on the breast cancer cause is a testament to the impact that breast cancer has in communities across Canada.”

But a well-funded research agenda is clearly necessary if we are going to induce a more precipitous drop in mortality rates. There is a pressing need for more effective, less-toxic treatments and, in particular, for research on how to stop tumours from spreading.

After all, people don’t die from the tumours in their breasts; they die when they spread to other parts of their bodies.

But because of biases in research granting, work on this problem has been noticeably underfunded. Most importantly, however, we must begin to take more seriously questions of primary prevention if we are going to make a real dent in incidence rates and stop this disease at its source.

While the sums of money raised by pink ribbon products comprise a tiny percentage of total funding for research, consumers could urge corporations to direct their largesse, however minimal, to preventive science.

The best approach is to circumvent what activists at Breast Cancer Action Montreal call “pinkwashing” and give directly to those organizations whose work we support. That way we might find ourselves on the path to a cure, or better still, a world without breast cancer.


October 21, 2006 - Posted by | Health | ,

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