The effect of this relentless brightsiding is to transform breast cancer into a rite of passage -- not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against, but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or graying hair. Everything in mainstream breast cancer culture serves, no doubt inadvertently, to tame and normalize the disease: the diagnosis may be disastrous, but there are those cunning pink rhinestone angel pins to buy and races to train for.
And she pointed to feminist breast cancer organizations that long have worked more quietly and directly to emphasize the science of prevention, detection and treatment, and to challenge different unproven and at times questionable approaches that became popular fads.
Feminist breast-cancer activists, who in the early nineties were organizing their own mass outdoor events -- demonstrations, not races -- to demand increased federal funding for research, tend to keep their distance from these huge, corporate-sponsored, pink gatherings. Ellen Leopold, for example -- a member of the Women's Community Cancer Project in Cambridge and author of A Darker Ribbon: Breast Cancer, Women, and Their Doctors in the Twentieth Century -- has criticized the races as an inefficient way of raising money. She points out that the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, which sponsors three-day, sixty-mile walks, spends more than a third of the money raised on overhead and advertising, and Komen may similarly fritter away up to 25 percent of its gross. At least one corporate-charity insider agrees. "It would be much easier and more productive," says Rob Wilson, an organizer of charitable races for corporate clients, "if people, instead of running or riding, would write out a check to the charity."
And that was one of Ehrenreich's main themes: that the cuddly pink popular breast cancer culture not only is normalizing the presence in our lives of a deadly disease, it is actually distracting from and even undermining a more salubrious scientific approach.
Their emphasis on possible ecological factors, which is not shared by groups such as Komen and the American Cancer Society, puts the feminist breast-cancer activists in league with other, frequently rambunctious, social movements -- environmental and anticorporate.
But today theirs are discordant voices in a general chorus of sentimentality and good cheer; after all, breast cancer would hardly be the darling of corporate America if its complexion changed from pink to green.
Ehrenreich didn't want her breast cancer to be considered normal, or acceptable, or distractingly empowering. She wants breast cancer to be understood for what it is. She doesn't want it to be a gateway to a sisterhood of survivorship; she wants it to be prevented, detected and treated. We cancer survivors do often find support and comfort in one another, but we never should forget the most basic facts about cancer. Like that it is a horrible disease. That kills.
To the extent that current methods of detection and treatment fail or fall short, America's breast-cancer cult can be judged as an outbreak of mass delusion, celebrating survivorhood by downplaying mortality and promoting obedience to medical protocols known to have limited efficacy. And although we may imagine ourselves to be well past the era of patriarchal medicine, obedience is the message behind the infantilizing theme in breast-cancer culture, as represented by the teddy bears, the crayons, and the prevailing pinkness. You are encouraged to regress to a little-girl state, to suspend critical judgment, and to accept whatever measures the doctors, as parent surrogates, choose to impose.
Worse, by ignoring or underemphasizing the vexing issue of environmental causes, the breast cancer cult turns women into dupes of what could be called the Cancer Industrial Complex: the multinational corporate enterprise that with the one hand doles out carcinogens and disease and, with the other, offers expensive, semi-toxic pharmaceutical treatments.
And that's the real story, not only about our nation's approach to cancer and cancer awareness, but very specifically to the Susan G. Komen foundation.
Continue reading below the fold.
One example is Komen's recent partnership with KFC to raise millions of dollars, and of course, just coincidentally, to associate the junk food giant with the promotion of health. But as Cheryl Rock, who researches the link between diet and breast cancer at the University of California, San Diego, explained to ABC News:
The number one most important guideline for cancer prevention is to maintain a healthy weight
And as explained to ABC by Barbara Brenner, the executive director of Breast Cancer Action:
They are raising money for women's health by selling a product that's bad for your health … it's hypocrisy.
And more specifically:
Post menopausal weight gain increases risk for breast cancer, Komen has this on their website, they know this, and yet they're tied to a company that's feeding the obesity habit in this country
As summarized by Lindsey Beyerstein:
An organization that is supposed to be an independent advocate for women's health should not be so closely tied to corporations whose entire business model hinges on maintaining unhealthy eating habits at the societal level. Kentucky Fried Chicken does not want to sell fried chicken in moderation, it wants to keep KFC as a fixture of our national diet. It's downright cheap to pay Susan G. Komen $8 million for the pastel pink imprimatur of fighting breast cancer and carry on business as usual. If its stance on BPA is any indication, Komen may even be less motivated to "raise awareness" about any future discoveries regarding diet and breast cancer.
And that's where it gets really ugly. Because if the Komen Foundation cares first and foremost about fighting breast cancer, it should first and foremost focus on promoting public awareness about the medical science. But as Amy Silverstein reported last October:
Famous for its fundraising races and pink gear, the foundation has been fighting breast cancer for three decades. So it may come as a surprise that Komen has posted statements on its website that dismiss links between the common chemical bisphenol A (BPA) and breast cancer, even while funding research that explores that possible connection.
BPA is found in everything from the liners of food cans to water bottles and, until recently, even many baby bottles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that BPA is found in the urine of more than 90 percent of the U.S. population. So why would the Komen Foundation deny any link to cancer, even as it funds research into the possibility? Follow the money.
Silverstein lists some Komen sponsors that use BPA in their products, including the Coca-Cola Bottling Company, General Mills, Koch Industries subsidiary Georgia-Pacific, and the 3M conglomerate, which manufactures Scotch Tape and has given Komen more than a million dollars since 2007. Given its membership in the toxic American Chemistry Council, which lobbies against environmental protections, the sponsorship of Komen by 3M seems particularly odd, but if you're wondering whether it's just a case of balancing corporate and social responsibilities, all you have to do is visit 3M's Facebook page, where its symbiotic appreciation of Komen could not be clearer:
Leading breast cancer org Susan G. Komen says no evidence to suggest a link between BPA & risk of breast cancer
Komen also partners with DS Waters, which has Komen pink caps on the bottles it delivers for water coolers. Bottles that are made from a polycarbonate plastic that contains BPA. Of course, Komen's president and executive vice president both denied that their donors have any influence on their policies.
And yet, it's hard to ignore mounting scientific evidence that strongly suggests a link between BPA and cancer. The United States' President's Cancer Panel concluded in 2010 that "more than 130 studies have linked BPA to breast cancer, obesity, and other health problems." A number of studies have found that the chemical causes breast cancer in lab animals. In human cell cultures, BPA has caused breast cancer cells to proliferate and has also reduced the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
In other words, Ehrenreich's point that the popular breast cancer culture ignores possible environmental causes of breast cancer may be an extreme understatement. It's one thing to ignore facts, it's another to disinform about them. An April 2010 Komen online statement claimed that BPA had been "deemed safe," and the current Komen web page titled Factors That Do Not Increase Risk includes the following dismissal:
Links between plastics and cancer are often reported by the media and in e-mail hoaxes (one e-mail hoax falsely claims to be a study from Johns Hopkins University). However, there is no scientific research supporting a link between using plastic items, such as drinking water from a plastic bottle, and the risk of breast cancer.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical found in some plastic food and beverage containers. Small amounts of BPA from the containers can get into the food and beverages inside. As a result, we can be exposed to low levels of BPA. At this time, there is no evidence to suggest a link between BPA and the risk of breast cancer.
No evidence? The United States' President's Cancer Panel specifically mentioned the link, but Komen said there is no evidence? Citing actual studies, the Breast Cancer Fund more accurately summarizes the research:
Thus, not only does early exposure to BPA lead to an increased risk for development of breast tumors, but exposure to BPA during chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer may make the treatment less effective. Recent data further suggests that BPA leads normal human breast cells to behave like cancer cells, and indicates that BPA may also make cells less responsive to the cancer-inhibiting effects of the anti-estrogen tamoxifen
And Komen says there is no evidence?
"I think that's at best, misleading, and at worst, demonstrating really significant ignorance by whoever at the Komen Foundation wrote that," said University of Missouri biology professor and BPA expert Dr. Frederick vom Saal in a telephone interview, reacting to Komen's 2011 BPA statement. "When you think of this as a foundation that's out there supposedly protecting women from factors that are involved in breast cancer, I find that statement to be just astounding."
Komen's chief scientific adviser, Dr. Eric Winer, claimed that women worried about plastics can just avoid them, which in a nation inundated with plastic products, sounds not just dismissive but consciously unconcerned about preventing cancer. In a phone interview, Winer was evasive about Komen's curious relationship to medical science and reiterated his blither about personal responsibility. But Dr. Julia Brody, the executive director of the Silver Spring Institute, twice wrote Winer to alert him that Komen's website includes information conflicting with research her institute conducted with Komen funding. And it goes without saying that most people looking for information on breast cancer are much more likely to seek it at a very well publicized breast cancer foundation than at a scientific institute. But Winer probably would say that also is a lifestyle choice. As have been his own decisions to accept funding from and consulting positions with various pharmaceutical companies.
Komen's downplaying of the link between chemicals and cancer isn't limited to BPA; the foundation also lists exposure to organochlorine pesticides, a category that includes the infamous DDT, as one of six "Factors That Do Not Increase Risk." But like BPA, many pesticides have estrogen-like traits. A 2007 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives even suggested that women exposed to DDT as adolescents were five times more likely to develop breast cancer during adulthood.
Komen has raised money for good research. But overall, it wraps breast cancer in a soporific pink haze, in some ways comforting but in dangerous ways numbing public consciousness about the realities of a deadly disease. It's not only that Komen helps normalize in public consciousness the pandemic presence of this deadly disease, Komen also normalizes the chemically saturated junk food culture that is one of the main causes of this deadly disease. Komen wants you to race for the cure, donate money, wear your ribbon and feel good about your contribution to the cause of fighting cancer. Komen doesn't much seem to care whether or not you understand how to lower your own risk of contracting cancer. At least not if that understanding interferes with the profits of Komen's large donors.
Komen is in damage control mode, and despite its blatant dishonesty, it will be well served by the traditional media's now traditional role of obscuring and obfuscating. But what has been revealed by Komen's move against Planned Parenthood was not out of character for an organization that long has proved itself more interested in self-promotion than public health. Komen is not about medical science, but it never really was.