Sunday, October 16, 2011

In the Pink

Two issues have been bothering me lately. One concerns the development of an "us vs them" mentality in the ovarian cancer community, a mentality that I also share even though I feel bad that I do. I have seen on ovarian cancer bulletin boards and websites a lot of posts of fury and frustration about how much airplay breast cancer gets when ovarian cancer is largely ignored. People are upset, for example, that stores had started putting up the pink breast cancer paraphernalia in September, which was Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Now that it is October, Breast Cancer Awareness month, you cannot go anywhere without tripping over pink stuff. It is infuriating given that ovarian cancer is a fairly deadly cancer for American women given its frequency- about 15,000 women in the U.S. will die this year of ovarian cancer out of a population of approximately of approximately 177,000 women who have been diagnosed with the disease. In contrast, breast cancer kills more American women in absolute numbers per year, about 40,000. However, there are currently 2.5 million breast cancer survivors-- about 14 times as many as ovarian cancer survivors, whereas the number of breast cancer deaths is less than 3 times the number of ovarian cancer deaths.
Cupcakes for the Cure (after you finish your KFC)

When I am not also feeling annoyed about the prevalence of pink and the absence of teal, I want to urge everyone to focus on the fact that once no one paid any attention to breast cancer either. It has taken over 25 years to build up this much awareness for the disease, largely due to the actions of the Susan G. Komen Foundation ("Komen"). Perhaps teal needs to take a page from the Komen playbook.

Which brings me to the second issue that has been bothering me. Are the methods worth the outcome of increased attention to the disease and money for research and treatment?  Natasha Singer in today's (October 16, 2011) New York Times reports that Komen has raised billions for breast cancer awareness, treatment and research.  Komen started with the Race for the Cure in 1983 but under founder Nancy Brinker's (Susan Komen's sister) salesmanship, Komen moved into commercial endorsements.  Although pink was associated with Komen from the beginning, the ubiquitous pink loop ribbon came out in 1992 as part of an Estee Lauder campaign and taken from another cancer advocate, Charlotte Haley, who first used a peach loop ribbon to solicit breast cancer donations.  And then the corporate sponsorships cascaded and grew until we find all sorts of interesting items in the pink genre-- such as KFCs Buckets for the Cure, Yoplait yogurt (with all its potentially breast cancer causing sugar), Egglands Best eggs (whose "humane" practices have been questioned), cooking appliances (I myself bought the "pink" Kitchenaid mixer because it was on sale for less than the other mixers) and even potentially carcinogenic perfumes.

It troubles me that breast cancer awareness has become big business although it is hard to argue with success.  For my teal sisters, I think we need to look carefully at the Komen model for raising money and awareness but we need to do something rather than feel sorry for ourselves that pink always seems to trump teal.

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