Breast Cancer Awareness month has been tainted by corporations and should be abolished

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  • Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) sanitizes a deadly disease and exploits it for corporate gain.
  • Despite billions of dollars spent, 'pinkwashing' has brought us no closer to a cure, and has trivialized the problems at the heart of the epidemic.
  • BCAM emphasizes personal, rather than societal failings through "survivor" narratives. But because of the structural and environmental causes, curing the disease should be considered a social justice issue.
  • Isobel van Hagen is a freelance writer and journalist from New York currently living in London.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Every October, the multi-billion-dollar "Cancer Industry" bombards us with pink ribbons on NFL fields, pink ribbon shoes, pink guns, police cars, wine bottles, and now, face masks — all in the name of breast cancer "awareness". 

Like any good brand-activism marketing campaign, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) is about corporate profit and customers' desire for ethical consumption. 'Pinkwashing' allows companies to advertise their brands as woman-positive, and do little else.

This branding is not only unhelpful, but is actively harmful to its cause. This October, it is time to bring some awareness to the awareness industry. 

The corporate beginnings of Breast Cancer Awareness Month

It comes as no surprise that National Breast Cancer Awareness Month was originated by a multinational pharmaceutical company.

In the 1980s, Zeneca Inc. (now AstraZeneca) partnered with the American Cancer Society as they began the awareness campaign in conjunction with a breast cancer screening program at the company.

The costs to the drug company of running the early detection program were estimated to be $400,000. The total costs to the company if they chose not to run the program were estimated to be around $1.5 million. It was simple math.

While AstraZeneca has since added that "the health of women is also a motivating factor," BCAM was conceived by a company that not only profits from the epidemic, but may be contributing to its cause. The recognizable symbol and money-maker of breast cancer – the pink ribbon – was attached to it shortly after.

Born from a desire for profit, the current state of Breast Cancer Awareness Month continues in this tradition. 

Most corporations participating in BCAM don't even donate to the cause

On its website, the activist group Breast Cancer Action writes: "The cancer industry consists of corporations, organizations, and agencies that diminish or mask the extent of the cancer problem, fail to protect our health, or divert attention away from the importance of finding the causes of breast cancer and working to prevent the disease."

The money trail of funds allocated to cancer research is nearly impossible to track, because any company can put a pink ribbon on its products with no oversight.

Even so, organizations like Susan G. Komen or Avon Cosmetics, say they have invested millions, or even billions, of dollars into breast cancer research. But where does the money actually go?

Because there are no federally mandated rules for marketing campaigns, Gayle Sulik, author of "Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health" told Vox News that, "it is up to only consumers to hold companies accountable."

Reebok, in one of many examples, marketed a line of pink ribbon footwear. Though it promoted the fact that some of their pink ribbon product sales would be donated to the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, they set a limit of $750,000 — regardless of how many shoes were sold. 

More duplicitous are the companies who participate in October activities, while actively producing cancer-causing chemicals and carcinogens, like car companies that cause pollution or toxins in cosmetics.

In terms of NGOs, it has been well-documented that millions in donor funds have been spent on 'awareness' events and salaries, instead of research.

BCAM capitalizes on breast cancer without actually helping 

You may say: "So what?" Beyond inevitable corporate greed, isn't this better than nothing? Some money is going somewhere useful, it's bringing attention to a deadly disease, and — at the very least — it provides people with a sense of community.

This process is a usual product of capitalism, similar to the recent corporate co-optation of the Black Lives Matter movement or the usage of the pride flag to sell merchandise. It is cyclical and works to uphold the status quo because it doesn't delve any deeper than "awareness" — which is essentially devoid of any real meaning - all in the name of profit.

The prevalence of corporate "pinkwashing" also contributes to the sexualization and gendering of the disease: with slogans like "Save the ta-tas" and "Squeeze a boob, save a life", which inherently trivializes the harrowing bodily violence endured by cancer patients.

In actuality, the normalization of observing breast cancer through pink-tinted glasses not only allows for the commodification of and profiting off a disease, it ensures distraction from the actual problem at hand: that the breast cancer epidemic is a social justice issue.

BCAM campaigns brush over the fact that the price of cancer treatments, for example, is increasing at a faster rate in the US compared to any other country (disproportionately affecting low-income patients). Or that the Affordable Care Act, which covers millions of people with preexisting conditions — including breast cancer — is in jeopardy.

There are also pervasive racial disparities related to lack of quality care, which awareness campaigns conveniently ignore. While Black women are less likely to develop breast cancer, they are 40% more likely to die from it than white women, according to the CDC.

The heart of the issue isn't early detection

But what about "early detection" as a form of healthcare? (The favorite motto of the Breast Cancer Awareness Month–believers).

The importance of the mammogram has been hotly debated — and while early detection is useful, it can lead to chronic over-treatment coupled with unnecessary biopsies and stress. Early detection also does not mean a patient will have a better chance of living, or being cured.

And despite the October stress on mammograms and billions of 'awareness' dollars raised for the cause, death rates in the US remain where they were 20 years ago.

In 1998, breast cancer activist Barbara Brenner spoke to a crowd in California explaining that the central message of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month — that annual mammograms save lives — is misleading. 

"Mammograms and better drugs won't stop cancer rates from rising, but stopping these companies from dumping millions of tons of cancer-causing chemicals into the air and water might."

BCAM ignores and distracts from the structural health and environmental inequalities behind the illness, like toxic chemicals, a lack of chemical regulation policies, and exposure to carcinogens, by putting the onus on the individual: you must get a mammogram, you must buy this pink ribbon to help, you are a fighter, you are a survivor.  Barbara Ehrenreich calls this the "the triumphalism of survivorhood" that "denigrates the dead and the dying, a sense in which breast cancer survivors are understood to have somehow fought harder than those who have died."

A practical step before buying those pink shoes this month is to do some research into if and where companies are donating: Is there a cap on their donations? What percentage of their sales goes to a cause that examines underlying social factors? Are they being transparent?

It seems, at its worst, breast cancer awareness is a marketing tool that works to sanitize suffering. My mother, like thousands of breast cancer patients before and after her, did everything "right". She detected early, she went through countless rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, endless nauseating drugs, and a mastectomy. And despite all of the "awareness", her cancer still brutally metastasized.

Obituaries often read, "She died after a tough battle with breast cancer" rather than, "the cost of her healthcare and the lack of research into the structural causes of breast cancer gave her no chance."

When Brenner died, her partner said in her obituary:

"She died after a long battle with the breast cancer industry."

Isobel van Hagen is a freelance writer and journalist from New York currently living in London. She writes primarily about gender issues, religious movements, healthcare access and the arts. Previously, she attended McGill University and Columbia Journalism School and has worked for various publications including Newsday, Newsweek, The Independent and NBC News.

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