With Breast Cancer Awareness month coming to a close, it’s time to reflect on the continued controversy over whether the predominance of the campaign has gone too far in what some critics call the “pink-washing” of America.
The debate centers on whether Susan G. Komen for the Cure, one of the best-known cancer charities in the country, is spending its many millions in donations wisely by investing in awareness campaigns at the expense of research and prevention.
Karuna Jagger, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, a national advocacy group, discussed pink ribbon backlash with Newsmax magazine in September 2013.
“What do we have to show for all this awareness?” she asked. “We still don’t have anything approaching a cure. We cannot screen our way out of this epidemic. We need to look at primary prevention” and at research and environmental factors.
A Komen official defended the money spent on breast cancer awareness by saying, “If you can’t get the benefit of research to people who need it, it doesn’t do much good.”
Still, the ubiquitous pink ribbons can alienate women who have, or who have had, breast cancer.
Rhonda Swan, a former colleague who is now a columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinal, wrote earlier this month: “Speaking as someone who had breast cancer, I can't support Breast Cancer Awareness Month because it's not about true awareness, it's about money.
“It's not that I don't care about the millions around the globe afflicted by this horrible disease. I was diagnosed and had a mastectomy two years ago.
“It's because I have no interest in supporting Breast Cancer Awareness Month until its focus becomes more about preventing this public health crisis than testing for and treating the disease.
“I won't do the Race for the Cure because the Susan G. Komen foundation has spent only 9 percent of its donations on prevention, and 7 percent on the causes of breast cancer since 1982.”
Despite the slogan “mammograms save lives,” research has shown that the benefits of mammograms have been oversold during campaigns such as Breast Cancer Awareness month, while the downside of the procedure has been understated.
H. Gilbert Welch, a professor of medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy, told Newsmax that only 3 to 13 percent of women whose cancer is detected by mammography actually benefit from the test, and that when mammography detects the presence of early abnormal cells that are unlikely to become lethal, women are often subjected to painful therapies for abnormalities that would never have caused illness.
Welch, co-author of a New England Journal of Medicine study of screening-induced overtreatment, said that getting biannual rather than annual mammograms would reduce the chance of false positives.
When the time came for my own yearly mammogram — and then passed — I received repeated notices. One friend even pressured me directly, saying, “With your history, you should get it.”
I admit that I was hesitant to go against what is still the prevailing school of thought. But it’s no longer the only one: Even doctors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute no longer promote yearly mammograms. When I told my local gynecologist that I would rather wait until next year, she said she understood why I wanted a break from being poked and prodded.
Gayle Sulik, a medical sociologist and author of the book “Pink Ribbon Blues,” writes frequently on the topic.
According to Sulik, “It’s almost like Breast Cancer Awareness Month has become a holiday, a shopping extravaganza, like Christmas in July. It’s created a spectacle around the cause, which actually diverts attention from the epidemic. The realities of breast cancer — not just the disease, but the treatments, controversies, mammogram screenings — the public at large doesn’t know what to make of this stuff because instead, all the awareness is focused on product marketing.”
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