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LONDON—I remember the first time it really hit me. It was at the third World Conference on Breast Cancer held in Victoria, BC, in 2002. I walked out onto the balcony overlooking the exhibition hall and there it was, a sea of pink.
This conference wasn’t like the first World Conference on Breast Cancer in Kingston, Ontario in 1997. In Kingston, it was all about environmental and occupational causes of breast cancer, primary prevention and cutting edge science.
The speakers were iconic in their work on prevention, and the conference was attended by campaigners whose names were recognizable from the radical campaign material we in the UK eagerly received from Canada and the US.
The Kingston conference was initiated by Janet Collins, who features in the film Pink Ribbons, Inc., produced by Ravida Din and directed by Lea Pool for the National Film Board of Canada (2011).
“The whole pink ribbon culture drain[ed] and deflect[ed] the kind of militancy we had as women who were appalled to have a disease that is epidemic and yet that we don’t even know the cause of,” said Barbara Ehrenreich, author and activist, who is featured in the film.
“We found sisterhood from other women and [from] looking critically at what was going on with our health care," she said. "I mean, what a change; we used to march in the streets, now you’re supposed to run for a cure or walk for a cure...”
At the third world conference in Victoria, with its pharmaceutical funding sources, many of the previous speakers from the scientific community weren’t invited, and many campaigners stayed away.
Nevertheless, those of us committed to prevention and environmental exposure met together and drafted a resolution.
The resolution urged governments to ban proven and suspected carcinogens, and to take a precautionary approach to those chemicals and substances implicated in breast cancer causation. This would entail that even in the absence of scientific consensus, exposure should be eliminated until proof of no harm can be determined and agreed.
In other words, better safe than sorry.
Although initially hesitant, conference organizers used the resolution as a basis for the conference press release. But we were branded. It was the last time I was invited to speak at the World Conference on Breast Cancer, and I was dropped with no explanation from the international advisory group. I felt like a troublemaker.
But at least I was in good company.
On that balcony, looking at the festival of pink, I first imagined pink ribbons used like blindfolds to prevent women from seeing the harsh realities of the disease, and like gags to silence dissent about the the lack of acknowledgement that exposures in our homes, workplaces and in the wider environment could contribute to our breast cancers. But as Judy Brady, author and activist, points out in the film, “If it were a conspiracy then we could expose it and people would be aware; but it’s not, it’s business as usual”.
In less than a decade, women seem to have gone from challenging organizations like the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition and the Women’s Community Cancer project, first shown in the film marching with banners reading "Draw The Line At 1 In 8," then as women running in pink feather boas and wearing t-shirts with pharmaceutical company logos on the back, embodying that infamous slogan: running for the cure, sponsored by the cause.
What the hell happened?
Samantha King, author of the book Pink Ribbons, Inc., suggests that the big players in the cancer establishment have boards of directors with representatives from the pharmaceutical, chemical and energy industries. It is thus almost impossible to separate the people who might be responsible for the perpetuation of this disease from those who are responsible for trying to find a way to cure or, even better, to prevent it.
It is obvious, then, that emotions like anger, dissent or disbelief and questions about exposures at work, home or in the wider environment don’t sit well with this festival of pink.
We could say that the pink ribbon industry has identified its audience well: the premise being that breast cancer only affects middle-class ultra-feminine white women, because this is the demographic industry wants to sell pink products to.
While millions of dollars have been spent studying the same populations—white, largely middle-class women—this research does not translate to the many African, Asian, African American and racially diverse women contracting the disease. We know their outcomes aren’t as good as those of their white counterparts. Yet so little is spent finding out why.
Is it because they are not the "right" demographic the pink ribbon industry wants to reach out to?
Along with the socio-economic considerations around breast cancer, the racial, cultural, environmental and occupational inequalities are at best not addressed; at worst, neglected, unfunded and largely ignored.
In the film, King reflects: “It wasn’t until Reagan came to power that we saw explicit policies designed to shift responsibility for health and welfare from the government towards private entities, philanthropic organizations, along with the encouragement specifically for corporations to participate in that.”
Or as Reagan himself said, “A buck for business if it helps to solve our social ills.”
The term pinkwashing is used to describe companies associating with a cause that people care about in order to increase their sales and to market pink products. Breast cancer is the poster child of cause marketing.
The irony is that many of the products sold, specifically cosmetics, perfumes, plastics and petrochemical-based products, contain ingredients linked to breast cancer.
“It is hypocrisy to use carcinogens in products and at the same time be advocating for a cure in another way,” says Jane Houlihan from the Environmental Working Group, speaking in the film.
When looked at skeptically, research requires investment and the end product has to be profitable and marketable. There is no profit in prevention or removing carcinogens from the environment, home or workplace.
One of the women attending the Plastics Automotive Industry focus group in Windsor, Ontario, led by Dr. Jim Brophy and Dr. Margaret Keith, said it was the first time she had ever heard that ingredients in plastics are mimicking the female hormone estrogen. She felt that this message needed to be publicly articulated, loud and clear.
Despite all the information out there on Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs), that information is still not reaching those who need it most. Women who have been working in the plastics industry for decades were given no health and safety training and no safety data sheets.
“The evidence is overwhelming on the impact environmental and occupational exposures have on this disease,” says Brophy. “Very little of the resources are going to looking at pesticides, combustion products, plastics, petrochemicals and solvents, many of the things that millions of women are being exposed to every day, either in the general ambient environment or their workplaces.”
And yet “women die from breast cancer just because they are women,” Dr. Olufunmilayoi Olopade reminds the film’s viewers.
While Pink Ribbons, Inc. doesn’t seek to undermine those who gain hope, strength and a sense of community from pink ribbon fundraising, it does ask critical questions about the industry and the pink ribbon brand.
Helen Lynn has campaigned on cancer prevention since 1995 with Putting Breast Cancer on the Map and the No More Breast Cancer campaign. She is currently a freelance campaigner and facilitates the Alliance for Cancer Prevention in the UK. This review was originally published on Alliance for Cancer Prevention's website.
What can you do?
•Go and see the film.
•If you raise pink ribbon money, follow the money and ask questions about how it is spent.
•Follow the example of the Toxic Links Coalition in San Francisco, which each year in October organizes a toxic tour and visits the branches of the worst polluters in their financial district.
•Organize a workplace group to examine what you are exposed to at work.
•Pay attention to what is in the products you buy—to check out cosmetics ingredients visit Skin Deep, a project of the Environmental Working Group.
•Don’t accept the blame. If 50 per cent of breast cancer cases have no known cause then it ain’t your fault.
•Read the book Pink Ribbons, Inc. by Samantha King.
•Check out the Tools for Action on Pink Ribbon Blues Blog.
•Remember: we can’t shop our way out of this epidemic.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.