Book Review -- From Pink to Green: Disease Prevention and the Environmental Breast Cancer Movement

From Pink to Green by Barbara Ley explores breast cancer within the larger context of women’s health at the nexus of environmental and health social movements in the United States.

Chronicling the environmental breast cancer movement from its beginnings, Ley explains how different advocacy organizations (from Breast Cancer Action and the Breast Cancer Fund to Susan G. Komen for the Cure) strategically tap into public and scientific discourse to shape how society deals with disease prevention and impacts the public health agenda.

Although breast cancer organizations have different motivations, contexts, and relationships with mass media, the “cancer industry,” and environmental movements, Ley points out that women activists have been at the center of organizing and empowering other women to take actions to change (at least in theory) the future for themselves and others.

“A Movement in the Making”

Ley opens From Pink to Green by describing a postcard she bought from a queer bookstore in San Francisco in November 2000. The black and white postcard of activist Raven Light (circa 1994) is of a young, topless, one-breasted woman. With her left hand perched on her hip and her right hand holding a sign that says, “Invisibility equals death” the short-haired activist displays the mastectomy scar on her right breast. Above her head in bold lettering are the following statistics:

1964 – 1 in 20
1980 – 1 in 14
1994 – 1 in 8

Next to the sign are the words: “Since 1971, more than one trillion dollars have been spent on breast cancer research and treatment. Where has it gone?” The back of the postcard reads: “Breast cancer is the number one killer of women between the ages 35 and 50. The cancer industry continues to ignore the link between epidemic cancer rates and the contamination of air, food, and water. We demand that our lives be valued over financial profit and that adequate health care be available to all!” When the cashier read the postcard he decided not to charge her for the purchase, since it was “for breast cancer.”

In that moment Ley realized the powerful resonance breast cancer has in American society and culture. She also contemplated its potency in political culture and the “small but increasingly influential…environmental breast cancer movement.” The postcard highlighted activists’ concerns about the rise in breast cancer incidence since the 1960s and the failure of the so-called “war on cancer” to solve the breast cancer problem through biomedical research and interventions. Reflecting the strong feminist roots of environmental activism, it drew attention to the importance of prioritizing a disease that primarily affects women. And, it featured a woman who did not adhere to traditional cultural standards of beauty and femininity. For Ley, this postcard captured the essence of environmental breast cancer activism and its connections to women’s health, environmental health, and environmental justice.

Changing the Dominant Paradigm

The environmental breast cancer movement is a health social movement that addresses breast cancer by strategically challenging the science on etiology, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. It engages scientific discourse in arguing that the toxic substances found in air, water, food, products, and our everyday environments at work and at home contribute to the development of breast cancer and other health problems. Ley describes how different groups within breast cancer, women’s health, and environmental networks function in concert (and sometimes in conflict) to confront issues related to industrial pollution, environmental causation, and cancer prevention while shaping the scientific direction of activism. With its focus on toxic exposures and hormone-disrupting chemicals in particular, the environmental breast cancer movement offers a new vision for public health, biomedicine, science, and environmental policy that ultimately necessitates new ways of thinking about everyday life and its socio-cultural and political underpinnings.

A key component of environmental breast cancer activism is the precautionary principle, an “approach to environmental health policy that encourages regulatory action in the face of uncertainty when some evidence of harm exists” (81). This “better safe than sorry” framework is in part a response to the scientific uncertainty surrounding many environmental factors and a lack of scientific research into environmental health effects. Activists argued that the suggestion of harm, rather than proof of harm should be good enough to propel action. Evidence of global warming, ozone depletion, mercury poisoning, air and water pollution fueled public support for the precautionary principle as both an ethic for public policy and for scientific practice. In shifting the onus of causation toward environmental as well as social, political, and economic factors, environmental breast cancer activists shift the blame from an individual woman’s lifestyle choices to the contexts in which those choices are made.

From Pink to Green book offers deep insight for health social movements internationally as the body of evidence linking environmental factors to breast cancer increases, and the pink ribbon culture and industry continue to seek global traction.

This is an edited translation of a review published by Breast Cancer Action Germany on September 6th, 2012. Breast Cancer Action Germany is a feminist patient advocacy group founded in 2006 and modeled after the San Francisco based organization, Breast Cancer Action.

From Pink to Green: Disease Prevention and the Environmental Breast Cancer Movement, by Barbara Ley. Rutgers University Press, 2009. 256pp. ISBN: 978-0813545318. From the series, “Critical Issues in Health and Medicine.”

Astrid Eich-Krohm, Associate Professor, Southern Connecticut State University (International Partnerships – Germany)

Astrid Eich-Krohm is an associate professor of sociology at Southern Connecticut State University. She received her training as a registered nurse in Germany and then became a nursing educator. After her move to the United States she went back to school and received her BA, MA, and PhD in sociology from University at Albany (SUNY). Astrid’s research is informed by both careers. Her MA thesis focused on infertility and how couples make decisions about childlessness, and her PhD thesis investigated how German highly skilled families determine whether to stay permanently in the United States or return to their home country. At SCSU she has had the opportunity again to combine her medical and sociological interests in her courses on the sociology of aging, medical sociology, migration, and other subjects. Since collaborating with Gayle Sulik on a variety of projects, Astrid has shifted her interests toward breast cancer in Germany particularly in terms of its newly emerging status as a “chronic disease.”

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