How "Breast Cancer Awareness" Campaigns Hurt

Boobs string tankOctober is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Pink ribbons abound at department stores, grocery stores, gas stations, shopping malls and many other places. But the big "awareness" push may be misplaced. After all, lung cancer kills twice as many women each year as breast cancer -- more women every year in the U.S. die from lung cancer than from breast, uterine, and ovarian cancers combined. In 2009 alone, 31,000 more women died of lung cancer than breast cancer. But there aren't any ribbons, theme-colored products, corporate promotions, colored car magnets, festivals or fundraisers to make people aware of lung cancer's devastating toll, or to support lung cancer victims or raise money for a cure.

Why not?

Sex Sells

Because female breasts are sexy, and sex sells. Lungs and other organs -- and their cancers -- just don't have the same zing. Lung cancer may be the country's number one cancer killer, but people are unlikely to flock to buy weird and inappropriate "lung cancer awareness" products like a colored "lung cancer awareness" hand gun, a "colon-cancer awareness" floating beer pong table or a bile-colored "pancreatic awareness" toaster. Lungs, pancreases, colons, prostates and other hard-working internal organs are just plain unattractive marketing tools -- they don't sell stuff. They are asexual, and hidden, and we like them that way. Not so with breasts. Female breasts conjure up buying power like few other organs, and the "breast cancer awareness" theme gives corporate America a legitimate "in" to link female breasts to sales of just about anything -- a winning combination for marketing purposes.

People also tend to blame lung cancer victims for their own disease, since smoking causes lung cancer. Never mind that cigarette companies engaged in 50 years of fraud and deception in advertising their products, or that they magnify the addictiveness of cigarettes by free-basing nicotine and performing other hidden chemical hanky-panky with tobacco. It's all the smoker's fault for getting cancer.

And What About Men?

Virtually all breast cancer awareness campaigns are silent about the fact that breast cancer also affects men. Men are at a diagnostic disadvantage for the disease because they are not urged to conduct self-exams or get screening mammograms the way women are. Ignorance about male breast cancer leads to long delays in diagnosis, reducing men's survival rate. Since the public is repeatedly told that breast cancer is a woman's disease, men have difficulty accepting the diagnosis when they are affected, even to the point of keeping their diagnoses secret. Male breast cancer victims also face a terrible stigma from society. One public health clinic refused to give a man a mammogram because he was a man. A neighbor of mine whose whose husband died of breast cancer (and who enlightened me about the toll the disease takes in men) told me that after his diagnosis, her husband's own friends jokingly derided him for having a "woman's disease."

When it comes to men, "breast cancer awareness" promotions as they are currently conducted, with their over-the-top emphasis on women's breasts, do more harm than good.

So It's All About Women's You-Know-Whats (Snicker!)

Beer4BoobsThese days, many breast cancer promotions have cringeworthy, degrading overtones that convey all the respect of drunken sailors at a strip club. A southern California company called "Save the Ta Tas" (phone 1-877-MY-TATAS), sells T-shirts with embarrassing slogans like "Caught you lookin' at my Ta Tas" and "I love my big Ta Tas." The company donates a small portion of sales from these items for research. A television commercial shows a woman wearing a skimpy bikini walking next to a swimming pool. Men gawk at her chest. The camera zooms in to focus on her jiggling breasts and a message fills the screen, "You know you like them. Now it's time to save the boobs." The ad invites viewers to attend an event called "The Boobyball Party." Hard Rock Hotels are advertising "Get into Bed for a Cure." There's even a horrifyingly-named "Beat the Hell Out of Breast Cancer" festival in Bryan, Texas, which offers promotional bracelets that say, "I Love Boobies." Flanigan's Boathouse in Malvern, Pennsylvania offers a happy hour called "Tips for Tits."


Alcohol Un-Awareness

Mike's Hard Pink LemonadeAlcohol manufacturers have started offending breast cancer survivors by using female breast cancer to sell liquor. California's Marin Brewing Company sponsors "BreastFest." The Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California has "All Hopped Up for the Cure," and Sweetwater Brewery in Atlanta minces no words with its ""Beer for Boobs" festival, promoted with the snickering tag line, "It's all about the boobs!" Delta Airlines' October in-flight magazine asks airline customers to "join Delta in the fight against breast cancer" by purchasing a pink martini made with Skyy Vodka and Minute Maid Pink Lemonade for $7. The Chambord liquor company urges people to "pink your drink", saying that "by adding a splash of Chambord to any cocktail, you're supporting breast cancer awareness year-round."

Liquor companies persist in linking their products to breast cancer awareness even though the National Cancer Institute warns that "even moderate drinking has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer," and the American Cancer Society says "The use of alcohol is clearly linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer."

Barbara Brenner, Executive Director of Breast Cancer Action, sums it up by saying, "Anybody trying to sell alcohol to promote breast cancer awareness should be ashamed of themselves."

Time for Self-Examination

Come October we are inundated with often mindless, embarrassing, even harmful and degrading pink cause marketing promotions. October, then, is a good time to urge consumers to look critically at marketing campaigns that persuade us to buy products by leveraging the emotions generated by a deadly disease, or employing sexual overtones to sell products. At the very first sign of pink, consumers need to start asking critical questions like "Is the product being sold actually good for us?" "Is the promotion appropriate?," "How would a breast cancer victim -- male or female feel toward this promotion? Would they consider it offensive?" and "Could I do more good if I donated money directly to a reputable disease research organization instead of spending it on this product?"

Chances are the answers to those questions will help consumers see that they've been taken for a ride on an often inappropriate and sometimes offensive rising tide of corporate pink.


Actually, unless you have reason to think you have an elevated risk for breast cancer, you may even be doing too much. The evidence on self breast exams is equivocal and I'm sure you're aware of the mixed recommendations regarding mammograms for women under 50. All of which underscores the original point: breast cancer, in the public mind, has grown out of proportion to reason.

I'm posting this article on MY facebook page because I'm sick to death of it, too. Plus, I am sick of the 'run for the cure' fraud, whereby everybody is running, walking, etc. to raise money for non-profit foundations which, by the way, have sitting on their boards none other than high powered pharmaceutical industry execs, there to make damn sure the money gets funnelled into new and more toxic and expensive drugs. There will never be a 'cure' from these people, because there's just too much money in it. Cancer is big business.

September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. And blue is the color of prostate cancer awareness... and if you can tell me how commercialising cancer helps in any way I'd be glad to know. The whole thing is getting out of hand.

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Our color is white, like death. I'm dying of it but can't seem to find even a koozie with a white ribbon on it. God bless all Cancer victims but if I see anymore Corporate pink I'm gonna scream at the top of whats left of my lungs! So thankful to read this article. It's becoming the Elephant in the room and nobody has the guts to say it out loud.

The month for prostate cancer is November (or Movember). It's also useful for fundraising via sponsorship, google it. It does have it's own problems though, like being less about the cancer and more about the moustaches most of the time. I dunno about lung cancer.

Most Disease Awareness Campaigns are Promoted by the Medical Profession and the Pharmaceutical industry to promote an "epidemic" where there may not be one, to sell an idea in order to raise money. I have no objection to people giving to charity, as long as the dollars are not extracted by taxation. It is, in fact, in poor taste as well as with lack of common sense that anyone would suggest in a liberal outlet like this one or any decent site that breast cancer awareness is being promoted because breasts are sexy and a charity can raise money for protection of female breasts. How cynical can anyone get? What people do with their own money voluntarily is their own business. When what they do is memorialized in law as the standard for everyone else to follow and as a donation required to support what is being done in the form of mandatory taxation, what I am getting at here is the so called "best practices" that the Obama administration is going to enforce with the power of enacting those standards into law, that is when people are going to question the “wisdom of the legislature” as the old legal term goes. The back room deals Obama has been making through Rahm Emanuel with the healthcare industry which has been donating $4 million a year in campaign funds to Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, may indeed influence where we spend tax dollars on healthcare. Examine what is happening in the back room of the White House behind closed doors before casting aspersions at the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Awareness campaigns. After all, this was a charity started by a woman in memory of her sister who died of cancer. What healthcare reform is going to do is to make you, not charities, pay for where we put our money towards a cure. Don't like the breast cancer campaigns? You can literally beat your breasts and scream and holler but you can't make anybody stop them if they get the government to enact legislation that breast cancer is a national priority and that government research should be devoted to it as a priority and that even with flawed radiology, we should make or influence every doctor heavily to get women to get a mammogram every year even if the radiation itself might expose them to cancer and the mammograms are not being read accurately by radiologists, thus promoting unnecessary surgery.

But the message from the BC/Pink movement doesn't seem to emphasize probable causes, or ways to avoid the disease. The Pink movement is cheerleading for money for a cure without cheerleading ways to prevent it in the first place. In addition to alcohol, the estrogen-mimicking chemicals in our environment are sure to have a role in our cancer epidemic. For example, the chemical bisphenol is now used in the lining of most food cans... cans you can probably buy to support the fundraising effort for BC.

Why?? Because approximately 94% of all those lung cancer deaths are self-inflicted due to smoking. Are you pro-choice?? Good. With your choice comes responsibility for it. If you choose to smoke you should be willing to accept the increased risk of lung cancer.

That's just the point. Because we're informed about the risks of smoking in relation to lung cancer, it's considered a choice and is therefore termed "self-inflicted". The fact of the matter is that most cancers are self-inflicted based on the choices we make as consumers. As a society, our ignorance allows us to pass ourselves off as the victims of these other cancers. It's one of the reasons the whole *think pink* campaign is under scrutiny. While we're busy pouring money in to passively finding a cure, we're distracted from the focus that might actually make a difference; real awareness, as to the cause. We ARE making choices, whether we are cognizant of it, or not. It is true that chemicals have invaded our everyday world: the foods we consume and products we use. But the *awareness* part is up to us, as individuals. It's up to us to educate ourselves and protect ourselves and our children from the harmful substances all around us. Ultimately, it is up to ourselves to protect ourselves, because obviously big brother ain't lookin' out for us!

Aside from ignoring deadlier and more prevalent cancers, its worth pointing out that the point of most breast cancer awareness campaigns is off base too. Advances in treatment of breast cancer mean that regular mammograms are now of dubious value and should probably be limited to people with a family history of breast cancer. All that mammography is very expensive and the gap in detection time between mammograms and regular doctor visits doesn't make much difference any more in terms of survivability. Finally, I think we need to ask "Who isn't aware of breast cancer at this point?" For those who are still unaware, clearly the current programs are a failure. Expanding or continuing them isn't going to help.