Breast Cancer Isn’t Just Pink
The documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. casts a skeptical look at all those pink-branded efforts to raise awareness
What is clear is that in the United States (and Canada, where the documentary hails from) breast cancer is deadlier in both young women and in the African-American community. That’s partially why Komen cutting funding to Planned Parenthood was so infuriating; the five-year survival rate for breast cancer diagnosed in African-American women is 78 percent, compared to 90 percent among white women, and Planned Parenthood provides health care for those women who are less likely to have access to prompt, high-quality treatment.
The upshot: While the gaps in the film and its scattershot approach are irksome, Pink Ribbons, Inc. still gives us a lot to ponder. It’s up to us to take the issues it raises and make our own decisions about our purchasing power, donations, approach to health care, and activism.
Breast cancer brings up particularly knotty questions for us as Jews. Just ask Rochelle Shoretz, a former law clerk to United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at 28 and founded Sharsheret (Hebrew for “chain”), a nonprofit that supports young Jewish women with breast and ovarian cancers.
“Ashkenazi Jews carry an increased genetic risk for breast and ovarian cancers, because one in 40 Jews carries a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene that can trigger these cancers,” Shoretz explained to me in an interview. “That’s why our community has to pay attention to screening and to family history. This is a Jewish family issue, a Jewish community issue—and that’s where Sharsheret focuses our energy. So much of our family health history was destroyed in the Holocaust; we have to give our children a legacy of health information that they can use to be proactive.”
The fact that we Jews may have a genetic propensity toward the disease is proof that there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to breast cancer. But that also means there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to cancer awareness. When I watched the movie Bully, I was uncomfortable with all the balloon-releasing “yay, let’s end bullying!” rallies—they don’t offer kids the practical tools for becoming allies rather than bystanders, and they don’t change the culture of schools (in fact, research shows that the zero-tolerance policies the film’s website advocates do more harm than good). But my heart went out to the kids and adults whose intentions are clearly lovely. So it is with all the pink-clad participants in the Komen Races for the Cure and the Avon Walks for Breast Cancer. The film spends a lot of time visually snarking at all the women screaming “whoo!” and dancing to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” and acting as unwitting shriek-y shills for the companies giving out plastic-bottled tea beverages. But these women mean well … just as the filmmakers do. People are drawn to the idea of doing something, even if it’s not the most effective something. The Avon Walks for Breast Cancer have raised over $150 million; Susan G. Komen’s Races for the Cure raised over $120 million in 2010 alone. Yes, as with the yogurt lids, there are valid questions about whether the money is well spent. Barbara Ehrenreich, in her brilliant essay “Welcome to Cancerland,” points out that Avon spends more than a third of the money it raises on overhead and advertising, and Komen’s numbers are similar. And yes, it’s a valid question whether these events marginalize those who “fail” at being “survivors.” As Ehrenreich says in the film, “We found sisterhood from other women and looking critically at what was going on with our healthcare. The sisterhood of now is supposed to be supplied by the runs and races … the effect of the whole pink ribbon culture was to drain and deflect the kind of militancy we had as women who were appalled to have a disease that is epidemic and that we don’t even know the cause of.” Wearing a ribbon and tarting up the Empire State Building, Niagara Falls, and Canadian Parliament in pink lights won’t change that.
But portraying women as dupes isn’t really helpful, either. Frivolousness and silliness do have a place in activism, right alongside anger. We need optimism. The trick is making sure it isn’t naïve, roped into the service of consumerism or (another issue the film doesn’t address) sexualization. The whole leering, youthful Save the Ta-Tas! and I Love Boobies! movement, which Peggy Orenstein addresses so well on her blog, is as unnerving as the middle-aged matrons shaking their pink sweatpants-clad booties to “We Are Family.” The “tyranny of cheerfulness” (as King puts it in the film) is cross-generational. But surely we can find a middle ground of pressuring the medical establishment for answers and treatment for all while also getting to dance. We have made strides in treating breast cancer—support groups are ubiquitous, research is advancing (albeit more slowly than we might like), and activists have pressured companies (yogurt companies!) into removing potentially cancer-causing hormones from their products. And as Shoretz puts it, “You cannot underestimate the benefits to those of us living with breast cancer of the attention the pink ribbon has garnered. Talk to anyone who has a cancer that’s not breast cancer and they wish they were part of a bigger cancer movement. The ‘how much is too pink’ debate will continue. But at the end of the day it’s important to recognize that there are benefits as well as costs to a pink campaign that has raised billions of dollars for breast cancer research.”
If Pink Ribbons, Inc. educates women into considering where they donate and whether they’re getting the most for their money, that’ll be a huge service.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
The first female rabbi was ordained 40 years ago. Now my Florida synagogue welcomes a woman to its pulpit.