Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer

“Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer.” By Peggy Orenstein, The New York Times Magazine.

I used to believe that a mammogram saved my life. I even wrote that in the pages of this magazine. It was 1996, and I had just turned 35 when my doctor sent me for an initial screening — a relatively common practice at the time — that would serve as a base line when I began annual mammograms at 40. I had no family history of breast cancer, no particular risk factors for the disease.

Breast Cancer Consortium Founder, Gayle Sulik PhD, was interviewed for this story. Excerpt follows:

In “Pink Ribbon Blues,” Gayle Sulik, a sociologist and founder of the Breast Cancer Consortium, credits Komen (as well as the American Cancer Society and National Breast Cancer Awareness Month) with raising the profile of the disease, encouraging women to speak about their experience and transforming “victims” into “survivors.” Komen, she said, has also distributed more than $1 billion to research and support programs. At the same time, the function of pink-ribbon culture — and Komen in particular — has become less about eradication of breast cancer than self-perpetuation: maintaining the visibility of the disease and keeping the funds rolling in. “You have to look at the agenda for each program involved,” Sulik said. “If the goal is eradication of breast cancer, how close are we to that? Not very close at all. If the agenda is awareness, what is it making us aware of? That breast cancer exists? That it’s important? ‘Awareness’ has become narrowed until it just means ‘visibility.’ And that’s where the movement has failed. That’s where it’s lost its momentum to move further.”

28cover-sfSpan.pngBefore the pink ribbon, awareness as an end in itself was not the default goal for health-related causes. Now you’d be hard-pressed to find a major illness without a logo, a wearable ornament and a roster of consumer-product tie-ins. Heart disease has its red dress, testicular cancer its yellow bracelet. During “Movember” — a portmanteau of “mustache” and “November” — men are urged to grow their facial hair to “spark conversation and raise awareness” of prostate cancer (another illness for which early detection has led to large-scale overtreatment) and testicular cancer. “These campaigns all have a similar superficiality in terms of the response they require from the public,” said Samantha King, associate professor of kinesiology and health at Queen’s University in Ontario and author of”Pink Ribbons, Inc.” “They’re divorced from any critique of health care policy or the politics of funding biomedical research. They reinforce a single-issue competitive model of fund-raising. And they whitewash illness: we’re made ‘aware’ of a disease yet totally removed from the challenging and often devastating realities of its sufferers.”

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