This October you'll see a certain color popping up around town. You'll pass by ribbons, vehicles and an untold variety of products lining store shelves — all pink.
Since its founding by the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical division of the Imperial Chemical Industries, Breast Cancer Awareness Month has made pink the color of October to raise awareness for breast cancer.
Over the past three decades, awareness campaigns have saved women's lives. By bringing what was originally a hushed conversation to light, countless women have benefited from routine breast screenings and from the knowledge that breast cancer isn't an automatic death sentence. Last month I joined forces with Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters) to introduce House Resolution 61 declaring October "Breast Cancer Awareness and Prevention Month" in California. However, my motivation isn't to repeat the typical message about "awareness."
The truth is that many in the breast cancer community dread October. The endless supply of pink products, commercials, events, stickers and more are emblematic to breast cancer patients and survivors of the commercialization of a terrible disease, and of the systemic problems in breast cancer treatment. During October, corporations will obscenely line their pockets with the profits from pink products, and organizations will solicit well-meaning donor's dollars for campaigns that have little accountability and oversight — all in the name of awareness.
We in the breast cancer community call this "pink washing."
I say "we" because I am 11 years out from my treatment for invasive breast cancer.
Awareness has its place, but it's time to move the conversation forward.
First of all, let's be honest about where we spend our limited resources. The stated goal of most awareness campaigns is to get women to do yearly mammograms starting at 40. For years we have poured most of our money into mammography. In fact, the nation spends $8 billion annually on mammograms, even though the U.S. Prevention Task Force has recently recommended that our total mammography spending should be about $2 billion a year. Contrast that to the amount of money we invest in all breast cancer research, which is only $4 billion per year. Of those research dollars, only about 5% goes toward researching metastatic breast cancer, which is the type of breast cancer that kills. We're investing even less to study the causes of breast cancer, including possible links with environmental toxins.
Then we have yet another systemic problem: Many women don't even bother to seek screenings, not because they aren't aware of breast cancer, but due to lack of health coverage. If we were serious about women's health, we would have universal healthcare for all Americans.
My goal isn't to discourage Breast Cancer Awareness Month, or criticize the efforts of well-meaning people and organizations that each year band together to fight one of the leading causes of death for women. Instead, I want to make a new call for action.
Let's take Breast Cancer Awareness Month back to its roots. Let's once again call attention to that which is being ignored. Let's stop the crass commercialization and be responsible about where we put our resources. We need to raise awareness, but shift our focus toward addressing the deficiencies in breast cancer research and treatment.
If we are going to be serious about stopping breast cancer deaths, then we need to invest our attention, energy, and dollars toward research, real prevention, and better treatment. And, we need to ensure that every woman has access to healthcare.
Our success cannot be judged on how loud we get or how pink our clothes are — our only success is reducing the number of women who die from breast cancer.