Interview with Samantha King

Photo Credit: http://www.thewhig.com/2011/09/07/pink-ribbon-untied

Samantha King is an associate professor and graduate coordinator and associate director of the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Her research focuses on breast cancer, corporate philanthropy, neoliberalism and the politics of health, sport and the body. Her book, “Pink Ribbons, Inc., Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy” was published in 2006 by the University of Minnesota Press. The Canadian documentary, “Pink Ribbons Inc.,” is based on her book.


In her analysis of breast cancer as a “dream cause” for corporations and the cancer industry, Samantha King argues that breast cancer advocacy and the culture that grew up around it became less oriented toward changing the status quo and more intent on fundraising, fitness events, and consumption-oriented empowerment. As the purchase of breast cancer-related goods and services came to represent optimistic survivorship, good will, and responsible citizenship, the pink ribbon Cause morphed into a vehicle for advancing the interests of corporations and privately funded charities.

Samantha King shares her perspectives on the state of breast cancer advocacy today.

BCC:

The Canadian documentary based on your book by Léa Pool asks: “Each year, millions of dollars are raised in the name of breast cancer, but where does this money go and what does it actually achieve?” What is the answer to that question?

Samantha King:

The short answer is we don’t know. I’ve spent years trying to find a precise answer to that question, as have many others including the filmmakers and a consultant they hired for that specific purpose. We know that once overhead costs are subtracted by fundraising organizations, the remaining money is distributed among scores of groups and organizations responsible for research, screening, education and treatment. But there is no coordination of these efforts, which results in research agendas and healthcare services characterized by both massive gaps and endless repetition.

Given the lack of transparency and oversight, it is not surprising that the options available for the newly diagnosed are approximately the same as they were when President Nixon declared the War on Cancer more than 40 years ago; nor is it surprising that we know so little about what causes breast cancer or how we might prevent it.

BCC:

One of the large organizations under considerable scrutiny today is Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The charity has been called out on numerous occasions for engaging in legal scuffles over its trademarked name “for the cure,” engaging in questionable corporate partnerships, disseminating misinformation in its advertising campaigns, reducing its funding of research despite record revenues, and among other things having political leanings that influence the direction of the organization. In February, you wrote an Op Ed for CNN about the Komen/Planned Parenthood scandal in particular, calling it “a teaching moment about politics and Komen.”

What were the lessons we should have learned in that moment? Has anything changed in the public consciousness?

Samantha King:

Samantha King: Certainly people have a diminished sense of Komen as a principled organization dedicated to fulfilling its vision of a world without breast cancer. That skepticism was a long time coming, but it was a necessary first step. The problems presented by the pink ribbon industry, however, are much larger than Komen, or even breast cancer. When the Planned Parenthood story broke, we heard over and over again that Komen had betrayed its supporters by politicizing the disease. But breast cancer, like all illnesses, has always been political and the course of disease will continue to be shaped by our social, economic and environmental priorities as a society. This is the lesson I wish we had learned. My fear is that Komen will disintegrate but their model of fundraising and their opposition to a preventative health model will be taken up by other disease constituencies, so that the major players change even as the problematic approach remains.

BCC:

Now that the pink curtain has been drawn back on the commercialization of breast cancer, what impact do you think it will have on the continued marketing of the Cause? Has anything changed in the realm of product-oriented fundraising?

Samantha King:

It’s hard to predict exactly how this will unfold, but we know that attendance at Komen Race for the Cure events is down and that many of their former participants would have been reliable consumers of pink products. In addition, because the Komen brand was so closely associated with breast cancer in the United States, there’s a good possibility that corporations will start looking for new causes through which to market their products. 

BCC: 

The popularity and fundraising potential of the pink ribbon Cause has been the envy many other health social movements that struggle for airtime and resources. What elements of the pink ribbon movement are worth emulating, and which ones might they be better off avoiding? What are some ways that groups can raise funds that are okay? Do we need to get past the near-exclusive focus on breast cancer to reunite our aims with other forms of cancer?

Samantha King:

Samantha King: The pink ribbon movement has helped make it possible for some women to be more public about their diagnosis and to find community with those who share a breast cancer experience. But it is foolish to think that we are going to overcome an illness that is linked to consumer lifestyles in the industrialized West by buying more stuff or raising more money. A prevention-first approach opens the door to alliances with other cancer constituencies but also with those concerned about public health more generally. We need to move away from a competitive approach to fundraising and activism while recognizing the biomedical and social specificities of disease.

BCC: 

What do you think needs to happen next in the breast cancer movement if it is to have a stronger impact on the breast cancer epidemic?

Samantha King:

The activist group Breast Cancer Action is doing engaging and effective work to shift the focus of the movement towards prevention, environmental health, and the social inequalities that shape disease incidence and mortality. My hope is that more individuals and organizations begin to acknowledge that the cure-oriented, mega fundraising approach to breast cancer has failed and that a fundamental transformation in how we understand the problem of breast cancer is required.

BCC: 

What’s next for Samantha King?

Samantha King:

Even before things got sticky for Komen in the US, they were focused on expanding their fundraising and educational efforts overseas. I’m keeping an eye on those activities and also writing a book about prescription painkillers in contemporary culture.


Interviews

Some issues of the BCC Quarterly feature a Q&A-style interview with a public figure. When possible, the subjects of these interviews, and the subject matter discussed, should reflect current events and issues. Interviews are 1,500 to 2,000 words, including a brief introduction to the Q&A format.

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