Thursday, October 21, 2010

The not so rosy side of breast cancer pink ribbons

National Breast Cancer Awareness month celebrates its 26th anniversary this year, and pink seems to be everywhere. Even football players are wearing pink. Have you ever wondered how this campaign began and what impact it is actually having on the prevention of breast cancer? Personally, I didn't give it much thought, that is until I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Before then, I rather naively assumed that anything pink was linked to a benevolent organization that was supporting the critical research needed to prevent the disease. That's why it came as a total surprise to realize that when it comes to the pink movement it seems there's a whole lot of gray.

Before I get to the gray, here's a brief history of the pink. Back in 1985, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) was organized through the sponsorship of Astra Zeneca, a pharmaceutical company, the American Academy of Family Physicians, a medical society, and CancerCare, Inc., a non-profit. More on this later, suffice to say for now that their purpose in forming NBCAM was to "promote breast cancer awareness, share information on the disease and provide greater access to screening services." NBCAM's initial week long event spawned what is now an internationally recognized month devoted to breast cancer awareness.

On to the story of how breast cancer awareness became wrapped up in a pink ribbon. In the early 1990's, activist Charlotte Haley was inspired by the yellow ribbons tied on trees to honor American soldiers. She decided to make peach ribbons in her home and distribute them in an effort to raise public awareness about the National Cancer Institute's small percentage (5%) of their then $1.8 billion budget going towards cancer prevention.  Her efforts caught the attention of Estee Lauder and Self Magazine executives. They contacted Charlotte about joining her efforts.  She refused saying they were "too commercial". The attorneys at Self Magazine suggested that the color of the ribbon be changed in order for Self to use the concept. That's when the pink ribbon began to be associated with breast cancer, and shortly after Avon began their breast cancer cause related marketing campaign. 

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with pink ribbons, or raising money for cancer research, or providing greater access to mammography for the under or uninsured. When done altruistically, these are extraordinary  things. What is disconcerting is when pink ribbons are used to boost a company's profits or image under the guise of philanthropy. Unfortunately, it seems that breast cancer has become big business. It's because of those seeking to profit from breast cancer that some critics of NBCAM are now referring to it as "BCAM SCAM", or Breast Cancer Industry Awareness Month.  But how is it that such a noble and worthy cause has come to be viewed by some as a scam? To answer this question, a little research, along with some open minded consideration, is required.

When it comes to the public's health, the primary goals of health officials are prevention, intervention and eradication of disease, with prevention being preferable to intervention (McKenzie). For example, "immunizing to prevent a disease is preferable to taking an antibiotic to cure one" (McKenzie). Case in point, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine and cervical cancer. Yet, when we look at the pink ribbon message, it focuses not on prevention, but detection and cure. Wait a minute. If prevention is preferable, why is the push for detection and cure? Because the detection and treatment of breast cancer has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Simply stated, prevention just isn't as profitable.

Skeptical? Perhaps a closer look at NBCAM might provide additional insight. Their organization was formed by Imperial Chemical Industries, the creator of Tamoxifen, a breast cancer treatment drug. In the 90's, Imperial Chemical Industries spun off Zeneca Group. Then Zeneca merged with Astra and became Astra Zeneca, which formed a non profit arm that is known today as AstraZeneca Healthcare Foundation, one of the largest financial contributors to NBCAM.  Astra Zeneca also created and markets Arimidex, another breast cancer treatment drug. CancerCares was also involved in the formation of NBCAM. A look at their donors reveals several pharmaceutical companies as well. So, what message would you want to spread if you were a drug manufacturer financially invested in breast cancer treatment medications? Probably not prevention. Might this explain NBCAM's focus on awareness and detection? To be clear, I'm in no way suggesting that awareness, screening and early detection of breast cancer is negative. The point is non-profit organizations accepting donations from companies that stand to gain from their philanthropy seems to represent a conflict of interest.

The pink campaign isn't only effected by conflicts of interest. There are also the companies that profit from linking their products to the breast cancer cause. At first glance this may seem altruistic, but sometimes things aren't always as transparent as they seem. For example, 12 years ago Yoplait began a pink ribbon campaign called Save Lids to Save Lives. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of their yogurt are donated for breast cancer research. The conflict resulted from their yogurt being made with milk from cows that were given a synthetic growth hormone, called rBGH. This chemical has been linked to breast cancer and is banned from use in many countries. You can read more about the topic here, and Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility has an interesting video discussing rBGH and milk found here or click on the Videos tab in this blog.

The term "pinkwasher" has been used to describe a company "that purports to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink-ribboned product, but manufactures products that are linked to the disease" (Breast Cancer Action). When you consider that Yoplait was both contributing to and profiting from breast cancer, one could say they were successful at "pinkwashing." Thankfully, because of pressure brought about by health activist groups, like Breast Cancer Action and their "Put a Lid on It" campaign, as well as concerned consumers, to their credit as of 2008 Yoplait has stopped using rBGH milk in their yogurt.

The above is just one example of pink ribbon profiteering. Breast Cancer Action has some great information on their Think Before You Pink site to help guide consumers when purchasing "pink" products. They suggest asking the following questions:
  1. How much money from your purchase actually goes toward breast cancer?
  2. What is the maximum amount that will be donated? Sometimes contributions are capped at a certain amount. 
  3. How are the funds being raised? 
  4. To what breast cancer organization does the money go, and what types of programs does it support?
  5. What is the company doing to assure that its products are not actually contributing to the breast cancer epidemic? 
You can find a more detailed discussion of these points here.

In a recent post I mentioned my support of the Love/Army of Women, a non-profit foundation dedicated to stopping breast cancer before it starts.  At first inspection I felt this group represented something that I feel is of critical importance - the need for more research into the prevention of breast cancer. However, after closer scrutiny I realized that this group is funded through a grant from Avon. This cosmetics company uses a number of chemicals in their products that have been linked to cancer through standard laboratory feeding tests done on mice and rats by the National Toxicology Program. Their study results have been published and accepted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. A perfect example of the importance of the need to "think before I pink."

A final thought. On my last visit to the doctor she mentioned that Tamoxifen is now being recommended as a breast cancer prevention treatment for women who are considered to be at high risk for developing the disease. I was hoping that more breast cancer prevention research would be focused on how to reduce our exposure to cancer causing agents, such as the above-mentioned chemicals. Sadly, this doesn't appear to be a research priority, but it's not that surprising.  All things considered, I suppose drugs would be the first line of defense offered for prevention, if the pharmaceutical and chemical companies are underwriting a great deal of the research being conducted in the area of cancer prevention. Evidently there isn't anything completely transparent when it comes to this issue. One thing is for certain, pink looked a whole lot rosier before I took off my rose-colored glasses.

McKenzie, J.,, An Introduction to Community Health, 5th Ed., Jones & Bartlett, MA, 2005
Lancet - Circulating concentrations of insulin like growth factor 1 and risk of breast cancer -
Potential public health impacts of the use of recombinant bovine somatotropin in dairy production -
Breast Cancer Action -

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