Pinktober is here. All the cancer charities are asking for our money and our time. Some want us to raise money for them by running in marathons, and every October we are encouraged to buy products that wear pink ribbons. Cancer patients and their supporters have responded with great generosity. But all cancer charities are not equal.
Sadly, many of the cancer charities have been corrupted, taking corporate money and participating in pinkwashing. (Pinkwashing got its name from greenwashing, a practice in which environmental organizations endorse polluters that give them contributions. They justify it because the contributions enable them to do good things for the environment, but the practice of greenwashing also enables the polluters to continue polluting.)
Pinktober is here. All the cancer charities are asking for our money and our time. But all cancer charities are not equal.
Possibly the most stunning example of pinkwashing was Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s partnership with Baker Hughes, a corporation that engages in fracking, a process that poisons the environment with known and suspected carcinogens. Using the cute tagline, “Doing their bit for the cure,” Baker Hughes produced 1,000 pink drill bits and shipped them to drill sites in pink-topped containers containing information about breast health. The Komen organization reportedly received $100,00This spawned a spate of satires, such as the following:
Susan G. Komen for the Cure today announced its alliance with the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company in launching its new brand of pink cigarettes called “Komen Smokes.” Emblazoned with the slogan, “A pack a day keeps cancer away,” three cents from every pack of cigarettes will be directed to funding the search for the cure for cancer.”
The Ukraine chapter of Susan G. Komen for the Cure will be hosting “Chernobyl Tours for the Cure” that offer visitors a chance to walk through the radioactive remains of the former nuclear power plant that suffered a meltdown in 1986. Komen spokesperson Dave Sourface explained, “It’s like receiving a thousand mammograms all at once! What could be wrong with that?”
The breast-cancer culture received a scathing critique in the 2011 film Pink Ribbons, Inc. (available on Netflix). Canadian director Lea Pool and her co-writers began with Samantha King’s book, Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, and King is one of the movie’s main voices. Also featured are Barbara Ehrenreich, a breast cancer survivor and author of Nickeled and Dimed; former surgeon Dr. Susan Love, author of Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book and a skeptic of “slash, burn and poison” treatments; and Barbara Brenner, former leader of Breast Cancer Action.
Defending the breast-cancer culture was Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, an organization which at that time had raised $1.9 billion for breast-cancer research. The film raised the point that we don’t have much to show for all that money in terms of results. Commentators on-screen discussed problems with the research, saying that it is poorly coordinated and badly focused, with very little spent on environmental causes and prevention, despite the evidence that the overwhelming majority of breast cancer cases are caused by environmental factors. In the words of one reviewer:
… the most important thing that Pink Ribbons, Inc. accomplishes is to urge us to look hard at what charities like Komen for the Cure are really saying about breast cancer, those who have it, and the companies trying to “pinkwash” themselves for profit or to insulate themselves from criticism. Because when looked at all together, the message seems to be that instead of demanding safeguards and accountability from corporations and governments that allow known cancer-causing chemicals into the products we use, the food we eat and the environment we live in, women should smile, put on a pink ribbon, donate to Komen and place the responsibility for both avoiding or surviving breast cancer on themselves.
Here are some of Komen’s recent campaigns:
- Kentucky Fried Chicken’s “Buckets for the Cure” campaign: For every pink bucket of fried chicken sold, KFC donated 50 cents to Komen, even though fast food and especially fried food are widely considered to cause many diseases, including cancer.
- In 2011, Komen created a perfume called “Promise Me” which contained toxic chemicals including galaxolide, an endocrine disruptor; touluene, a possible carcinogen with liver toxicity; and coumarin, which is toxic to the liver and kidneys and used to kill rodents.
- In 2012, Komen partnered with the Coca Cola Company promoting FUZE tea, which contained 31 grams of sugar, high fructose corn syrup (likely genetically modified), sucralose, and preservatives.
- In 2013, Komen was one of the beneficiaries of the yogurt maker Yoplait’s campaign called “Save Lids to Save Lives.” They donated 10 cents per lid with a special code which consumers could redeem, even though hormone-laden dairy, sugar, and artificial chemicals have all been linked to cancer.
- In 2012 the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation made an apparently politically-motivated cut to its grants to Planned Parenthood to provide mammograms to low-income women. After a massive public outcry, the foundation backed down, but people started looking more closely at Komen’s corporate partnerships and the fact that they focus on curing breast cancer instead of preventing it, and some began wondering if Komen is providing pink ribbons as cover for companies that increase the load of carcinogens in the environment. Could it be that the focus of research is kept off prevention because prevention would turn public attention to the toxins that corporations are releasing into every aspect of our lives?
I had a personal experience with corporate pinkwashing when I was getting ready for chemotherapy. I was invited to a workshop called “Look Good, Feel Better.” Run by the Personal Care Products Council and the American Cancer Society, it’s a free workshop that gives beauty tips and complimentary makeup kits to women in cancer treatment. All of us in my support group were happy to go because we all needed guidance in figuring out what to do about hair loss and other issues affecting our personal appearance.
Unfortunately, it turned out that many, if not all, of the freebies in our kits contained known or suspected carcinogens, and some of the chemicals they contained may actually interfere with breast cancer treatment.
Breast Cancer Action, a national organization advocating for women at risk of and living with breast cancer, launched a project called “Think Before You Pink” in 2002. This campaign calls for more transparency and accountability by companies that take part in breast cancer fundraising and encourages consumers to ask critical questions about pink ribbon promotions. Breast Cancer Action rejects corporate funding from companies that contribute to or profit from breast cancer. Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action writes,
“Pinkwashing has become a central component of the breast cancer industry: a web of relationships and financial arrangements between corporations that cause cancer, companies making billions off diagnosis and treatment, nonprofits seeking to support patients or even to cure cancer, and public relations agencies that divert attention from the root causes of disease.”
Samuel S. Epstein, M.D. is professor emeritus of environmental and occupational health at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health, and founder of the Cancer Prevention Coalition. He has written 270 articles and 12 books, mostly about the preventable causes of cancer. His 2011 book, National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society: Criminal Indifference to Cancer Prevention and Conflicts of Interest, charges that the federal National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the nonprofit American Cancer Society (ACS) have spent billions of taxpayer and charitable dollars promoting treatment and ignoring prevention, other than quitting smoking.
He charges them with refusing to make information about the avoidable causes of cancer available to Congress and to the public because of their alliances with special interests. He accuses the cancer establishment of supporting a “blame-the-victim” attitude toward the cause of cancer, including breast cancer, attributing the rising cancer rates to individual heredity and lifestyles, rather than to avoidable exposure to carcinogens in the environment.8
So are there any breast cancer charities we can trust? Yes, fortunately, there are charities that don’t engage in pinkwashing, that stress prevention, and that don’t blame the victim. You may know of some already, and we list charities that we trust under our Resources tab.
Janet Maker, Ph.D.
The Thinking Woman's Guide to Breast Cancer