The PINK White Elephant

According to Wikipedia, “the term “white elephant” refers to an extravagant but burdensome gift which cannot be easily disposed of, supposedly after the King of Siam gifted rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him, that they might be ruined by the animals’ upkeep costs.” The term is also fitting for a recent campaign by Kohl’s department store in partnership with Susan G. Komen [for the Cure]. Apparently, thirty years after the donning of the age of breast cancer awareness there is now a need to start a conversation about breast cancer.

I would argue, and have argued, that there is definitely a need to change the conversation on breast cancer; get real about breast cancer; acknowledge the misinformation, trivialization, and commercialization of breast cancer; demand transparency and accountability of stakeholders in the breast cancer industry. I started the Breast Cancer Consortium with this goal front and center. But the Kohl’s-Komen campaign is not about that. It’s about buying and displaying pink.

And, it’s about doing so while advertising for a large corporation and a breast cancer charity that is trying to improve its tarnished reputation after a series of missteps involving pinkwashing, trademark feuds, funding allocations, the Planned Parenthood scandal, questionable marketing tactics, lack of transparency, the misuse of scientific information in advertising, and, among other things, a lack of serious attention to metastatic disease.


Indeed, metastatic breast cancer has been the elephant in the PINK room for years.

In an interview I did on May 27th, 2011 with the founder of METAvivor Research and Support, Inc., CJ Corneliussen-James, I said as much.

Metastasis is the proverbial elephant in the room that keeps breast cancer mortality statistics from declining. It is the story that, according to CJ, ”the media does not want to hear and the big money organizations do not want to publicize.” She continued,

“No one really wants to know about the three deaths over the past two weeks in my group of 33 local women, or the two others presently in hospice care, or the young mother with the six-month old who was diagnosed with extensive metastasis just six weeks before the delivery of her first child…The cancer/breast cancer organizations tug at the heartstrings of the public by starting their speeches with the tragic tale of someone they loved, who died. But when the collected funds are divided up, the BC Mets community is all but forgotten. Primary breast cancer, or prevention and early detection are the attention-getters and the funding recipients.”

The Metastatic Breast Cancer Network and METAvivor Research and Support, Inc. – the organization CJ founded in 2007 – [were] the only national organizations dedicated to metastatic breast cancer. This may explain in part why only a fraction of research in the United States examines metastatic tumors and processes. In 2008 Journalist Clifton Leaf reported in Cancer World that ironically, “the vast majority of research grants and drugs are not aimed at combating what actually kills people.” Metastatic breast cancer researcher Dr. Danny Welch astonished attendees at a meeting of the National Breast Cancer Coalition when he stated that only 1000 researchers study breast cancer metastasis worldwide. For CJ, this is not good enough.

“While early detection has been successful in terms of diagnosing more people at stage 0 or 1, even stage zero patients can and do develop invasive breast cancers that metastasize. Many breast cancers by their very nature will continue to go undetected until they have progressed to stage II, III or even IV.”

Missing from public accounts. Missing from support networks. Missing from awareness campaigns. Missing from research agendas. And then just, missing.

When CJ was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, she was well aware of the support systems for the newly diagnosed. Her local hospital had a program called Survivors Offering Support (SOS) that provided year-long volunteer mentors to help people through their treatment. There were conferences, support programs, gifts, fundraisers, and lots of pink. After the cancer metastasized to her lung less than a year after completing her treatment (surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation), CJ entered a very different world. This time there was no mentor, no help, and no flurry of gifts. She felt deserted.

Fortunately the former Lieutenant Colonel had experience dealing with the deserted. She knew how to investigate foreign territory, how to find resources, how to galvanize people to action, how to recover the missing. When CJ called the founder of SOS to ask what they offered to people with “BC Mets,” Denise O’Neill answered sympathetically, “nothing.” CJ immediately started to collect materials and create a support system.

What began with an 8-person kick-off party in December 2007 quickly grew into a strong, volunteer-led non-profit organization called METAvivor Research and Support, Inc. Run mostly by those who have metastatic breast cancer, the organization was created to increase awareness, support, and research specifically for metastatic breast cancer.

Aligned with its mission bring metastatic breast cancer to the table, METAvivor launched a fundraising campaign in October 2012 called MBC Aware with the tagline, “Don’t Ignore Stage IV, The Elephant in the Pink Room.” Here is the advertisement.


If you think the new Kohl’s-Komen campaign resembles the 2012 METAvivor campaign you would be correct. The elephant and the metaphor clearly stand out. But as Kathi Kolb explains in her blog post Komen & Kohl’s Klueless Kampaign,

“Not only does [the Kohl-Komen campaign] co-opt the elephant-in-the-room metaphor that METAvivor used, it’s the wrong elephant.”

And whereas the Kohl’s-Komen compaign asks consumers not to ignore the PINK elephant, METAvivor’s asked people not to ignore Stage IV.” Yes, Komen did join other organizations in a metastatic breast cancer alliance late last year, but the organization has much to answer for with regard to its inattention to the metastatic community over the past three decades. This campaign doesn’t help. Kolb writes further that the site page goes on to say,

We’ve all heard of the elephant in the room. This spring, Kohl’s partners with Susan G. Komen to take on the pink elephant in the room — the topic of breast cancer. It’s a conversation no one wants to have, but one of the things we must talk about. Start the conversation today with #TalkPink.

Kolb retorts:

“Oh, sure. As long as no one mentions the real elephant in the room — metastatic breast cancer — you know, the kind that causes death. Wouldn’t want to spoil anyone’s shopping experience, would we?”

The similarities in the campaigns are striking, so much so that “CJ” Corneliussen-James contacted Kohl’s headquarters last week. CJ was promised that the Kohl’s president would call her on Friday (Feb. 21). She never received that call until February 27th. Senior Vice President of Marketing at Kohl’s contacted METAvivor to “open a dialog.”

The most basic acceptable resolution for the Kohl’s-Komen campaign would be to remove the elephant metaphor entirely and incorporate evidence-based information about breast cancer, including metastatic breast cancer into the campaign. Many advocates would also like to see attention to the trivialization and commercialization of the disease, but that’s a tall order.

In the meantime there have been efforts like this one from blogger, The Sarcastic Boob, to answer the Kohl’s-Komen call to “start a conversation.”

Scorchy Occupy PinkTalk

Probably not the conversation they were looking for. But, this extravagant but burdensome white elephant may yet be disposed. Take a look for yourself.

If you are so moved, join the conversation and tweet it out to #talkpink.

This essay was originally published on Pink Ribbon Blues on February 24, 2014.

Related Articles and Blog Posts:

  • Outrage, by Lori Marx-Rubiner, Regrounding, February 21, 2014.
  • Komen & Kohl’s Klueless Kampaign, by Kathi Kolb, Accidental Amazon, February 22, 2014.
  • Integrity Always Matters, by Nancy Stordahl, Nancy’s Point, February 27, 2014.
  • Occupy #TalkPink, The Sarcastic Boob, February 27, 2014.
  • Pinkwashing the Elephant in the Room, by Victoria Colliver, SF Gate, March 4, 2014.
  • Why I Am Anti-Komen, by Lara Huffman, Get Up Swinging, March 5, 2014.
  • METAvivor Won’t Go Quietly Into the Night, News In Marketing, March 6, 2014.

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