I spend a lot of time looking forward to October 1. Mostly, this is because I feel that is the socially acceptable time to start putting out Halloween decorations and putting on sweaters, even though it is almost 90 degrees in Tennessee.
But when I woke up Sunday morning, I wasn’t greeted with the images of spooks and goblins and cardigans that I had been hoping for. When I logged onto the internet, my computer was covered in pink ribbons. “Oh,” I thought. “Here we go again.”
When I was 11, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer the first time. She had a double mastectomy, did three rounds of chemo, lost her hair, and showed her newly reconstructed breasts to anyone who wanted to take a look. She was labeled a survivor, and she was proud of that title. I knew she had certainly earned it.
After she was declared in remission, we did the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in October. We did the 1-mile fun run and she wore her pink and white shirt with her pink ribbon pin on it. She had survived, and this gave us an opportunity to celebrate that.
But two years later, the cancer had come back. Not only had it come back, but it had metastasized into Stage 4 cancer, which only has a 22 percent 5-year survival rate. She was not one of the lucky few. After a year of experimental chemotherapy, she passed at age 46.
After she died, I felt a little more sting whenever someone showed up with a pink ribbon, but I still thought, yes, buy products that help fund research! Let’s find a cure! But as time went on, I began to feel more and more jaded by pink ribbons plastered across the women’s side of stores during the entire month of October. Here are some reasons why.
Some companies are bad for women
I believe in solidarity among women. I believe that we can help each other, support each other, and hold each other up through common struggles. But the pink ribbon has gone from being a show of support and solidarity to a marketing ploy, allowing women to feel like they are doing something to support other women while they are actually supporting corporations, many of which have terrible track records of hurting women.
Many of these companies, such as Nike, put pink ribbons on their shoes and clothes, while actually creating unsafe working conditions for women internationally.
The NFL sells breast cancer awareness apparel, but is often apathetic toward accusations of domestic violence among their players. And remember that Native women get breast cancer too before purchasing pink Washington Redskins clothing.
Many makeup companies, such as Estee Lauder, will also be donating a percentage of their proceeds toward breast cancer organizations, but many of those products contain chemicals that may increase the risk of breast cancer.
And these are only a few examples. For resources on how to determine if a product you’re buying is bad for women, check out Think Before You Pink, a project of Breast Cancer Action, or Think Pink!, for a great list of questions every consumer should be asking.
The money may not be going to research
Many companies only give a small percentage of their pink ribbon revenue to breast cancer organizations. Additionally, those organizations themselves may only spend a small percentage of their donations on research.
The Susan G. Komen foundation, to which many of those pink ribbon campaigns donate, only spends about 15–25 percent of its donated money on research. If you’re buying to help fund the cure, it would be more advantageous to skip the shoes or the water bottle or the makeup and give to organizations that give more directly to research. The Breast Cancer Research Foundation is a great place to start. You should also check out the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation.
If you care about funding breast cancer screenings, consider giving to women’s healthcare organizations such as Planned Parenthood. Or, if you want to help women afford treatment, The Pink Fund helps breast cancer patients stay financially afloat.
No one’s disease should be used as a marketing tactic
October can be a nightmare for those of us who have experienced this disease up close. Breast cancer has been used as a way to sell everything from moving services to fried chicken to jewelry to t-shirts. So it is easy to see how pink ribbon campaigns can easily go from “raising awareness” to relentless reminder very quickly. It can be a little hard to reconcile festive pink clothing or playful “save the boobs” campaigns with the reality of life or death.
And most days, I manage to forget that my risk of developing breast cancer is twice as high as those without a family history. But during the month of October, it is difficult to escape the reality of the disease when its symbol is plastered all over store windows, company websites, and race t-shirts. Your feel-good pink purchase is my sense of dread.
But I could get over it if I felt all the awareness was driving people toward meaningful action. But when companies use cancer to drive profit, their motives are suspect, especially when many of those companies also profit on the abuses of their workers or the insecurities of their consumers.
I want survivors to celebrate their victories, and I want breast cancer research to be fully funded. But what I don’t want is for a company’s profits to become a stand-in for more meaningful contributions and action.