Editor’s Note: You may have seen Karuna’s recent op-ed, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Pink-Ribbon Culture is Gaslighting Women. The op-ed struck a nerve for thousands of people and gave voice to what many of us have felt . It reached over 15,000 people on Facebook and lit up the Twitter-sphere as well. Breast Cancer Action has led the call to move beyond empty awareness since we first launched Think Before You Pink in 2002. So when Karuna saw San Francisco City Hall illuminated in pink, she got mad and she wrote about it. Culture change takes time, but we are joined by more and more people who are calling out the harms of pink-ribbon culture and demanding political action. Thank you for being part of this movement for real change.
By Karuna Jaggar, Executive Director
Why did I see red when I caught sight of San Francisco’s City Hall lit up pink for breast cancer awareness this week? It’s the same reason I don’t feel one bit safer knowing Berkeley’s police department is wearing pink badges to bring attention to “the fight against breast cancer.”
The steady beat of breast cancer awareness, with its upbeat mantras, becomes a deafening crescendo each October. And all that pink noise drowns out the voices of people who are directly affected by breast cancer. It’s painfully clear that all that pink awareness is meaningless without action.
Gaslighting is deliberate psychological manipulation that causes someone to question their own sanity while making them feel dependent on the perpetrator of that harm. And it’s clear that pink-ribbon culture is sanctioned gaslighting, celebrated during its very own pink month.
We’re told to “fight like a girl” and “kick cancer’s ass.” But the truth is more often it feels like cancer treatment is actually kicking our ass. Are we doing cancer wrong if we’re too sick to run a marathon or too sad to “smile more”?
We’re lightheartedly told to “save the tatas” and “save second base” — and we’re shown provocative photos of a young woman posed coyly to remind us just how sexy breasts are, and by extension, breast cancer as well. But some of us have had mastectomies that remove our breasts. Are breast-less women still worthy of saving?
We’re told that breast reconstruction “looks and feels natural.” But the truth is that we can’t actually feel our chests after a mastectomy and reconstruction surgeries are complex with high rates of complications. Are we duped into wanting reconstruction by societal pressures of femininity and sexuality? And are we self-indulgent to center our own comfort and pleasure when we reject that reconstruction is an “upgrade”?
We’re told that breast cancer is the “good” cancer and are asked “does anyone still die from breast cancer anymore?” But the truth is that the number of women dying from breast cancer has hardly changed over the past 30 years. And women of color are more likely to die than white women. Up to 30% of breast cancers, even those caught early, will go on to metastasize, or spread to other parts of the body. And even if breast cancer doesn’t return or spread, we live with increased risk of heart disease and secondary cancers caused by treatment, higher likelihood of being un- and under-employed years after treatment, permanent physical effects and sexual changes, psychological trauma, and much more.
Are we just ungrateful if we’re angry and scared about the lifelong toll of breast cancer treatment?
And all the while, we’re told that if we just buy the next pink ribbon product, or walk for breast cancer, or help spread awareness, fewer women will die from breast cancer. But the truth is that there is too little to show for the hundreds of millions of dollars spent in the name of breast cancer.
We’re told our anger is not helpful. But what’s actually not helpful is when corporations partner with mega nonprofits in an effort to build their brand but fail to take the necessary steps to ensure their products or services aren’t increasing our risk of breast cancer. Using breast cancer to sell products is just another spin on using women’s bodies to sell products. And when breast cancer becomes commodified, it is made palatable. And companies use cheerful stories and simple solutions to sell us their pink promotions.
Many companies use pink ribbon promotions to try to distract from their PR problems by claiming they’re socially responsible. Even the NFL has gotten into the breast cancer business, eager to distract us from their sexual assault and concussion problems. Not to mention news about the economic exploitation of cheerleaders. To get more women to buy football tickets, they try to convince us the NFL cares about women’s health.
We’re told our rage isn’t healthy.
But what’s actually not healthy are the synthetic chemicals that can increase our risk of breast cancer that we’re all exposed to from before birth until our deaths. Hormone disruptors and carcinogens in our food, water, air and consumer products. Chemicals that we can’t just avoid through careful consumer choices. Chemicals that may also interfere with treatment efficacy.
The disconnect between what we’re told during the month-long celebration of Pinktober and how we feel is another, distinctly capitalist, cruelty of the disease. Instead of relief that the country spends a month talking about breast cancer, which is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths for women, many people in the breast cancer community feel disheartened that corporate interests are covering up the truth and ugly reality of breast cancer.
Which is why at Breast Cancer Action, we’ve long referred to October as Breast Cancer Industry Month, exposing the ways the pink ribbon-culture serves corporate interests more than the people affected by the epidemic. Because Breast Cancer Awareness Month is gaslighting, in its crudest, cruelest, pinkest form.
Promoting awareness is easy. But it’s also meaningless when everyone is already aware of breast cancer. It’s long past time to move from awareness to action. Political action. Because breast cancer is and always has been political, just like women’s health and bodies are political.