Friday, October 5, 2012

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Seeing red over pink!

image of pink lit White House from CBC News
It's that time of year when I see red, even though October is all about the color pink. That's because it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Here in the states it's referred to as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM), and even the White House is wearing pink! This whole pink thing is really getting old and frankly, since going through my own breast cancer experience, I find I'm actually angered by it all. Now that I've gotten that off of my, er, dare I say, chest - I'll get straight to the issue. How could a positive thing like raising awareness about cancer rouse me to anger?

Well, before I tackle that question, I want to be clear that this isn't going to be a post bashing America, or medical experts, researchers, charities or any others that have made a positive difference in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer or any cancer. My family and I have personally benefited from these things, and I am especially grateful for early detection. My hope is that this post will provide some food for thought.

Experts agree that an increased awareness about a disease may encourage a person to receive medical screening that can lead to early detection (6). Obviously, this is a good thing. But after more than 25 years of raising awareness, is NBCAM actually impacting the early diagnosis of breast cancer? A recent study published in the Journal of Health Economics researched this question and they found the answer is no, not any more (1). So, if NBCAM is no longer effectively raising public awareness about breast cancer or encouraging early detection via screening, than why is it we are seeing more pink than ever? I believe it's because breast cancer has turned into a profit generating industry, and I'm not alone in this thinking.

Profiteering of breast cancer? -
What ever happened to the thinking that:

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Benjamin Franklin 

Benjamin Franklin's quote holds true for those of us health seekers doing our best to prevent disease. But how does this resonate with, for example, a pharmaceutical company, whose bottom line is to make a profit? Let's face it, there's just not much money to be made in preventing breast cancer, or any cancer for that matter. Consider the primary breast cancer treatments to date: slash, burn and poison, otherwise known as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. In a previous post I discussed an instance where a pharmaceutical company that produced a chemotherapy drug also made a bovine growth hormone being used in dairy cows. This hormone has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer (5). But, hey, we've got a drug for that.

Whose interests are being served here? This is just one sad example of how some corporations have turned breast cancer into a profitable industry. Breast Cancer Action explains it this way:
 "The cancer industry consists of corporations, organizations, and agencies that diminish or mask the extent of the cancer problem, fail to protect our health, or divert attention away from the importance of finding and working to prevent the disease. This includes drug companies that, in addition to profiting from cancer treatment drugs, sometimes produce toxic chemicals that may be contributing to the high rates of cancer in this country and increasing rates throughout the world. It also includes the polluting industries that continue to release substances that are known or suspected to be dangerous to our health, and the public relations firms and public agencies that protect these polluters. The cancer industry includes organizations like the American Cancer Society that downplay the risk of cancer from pesticides and other environmental factors, and that historically have refused to take a stand on environmental regulation. " (3). 
More to NBCAM than meets the eye?-
So what does National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) have to do with this? Well, let's see. According to Wiki, NBCAM "is an annual international health campaign organized by major breast cancer charities every October to increase awareness of the disease and to raise funds for research into its cause, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure. The campaign also offers information and support to those affected by breast cancer. As well as providing a platform for breast cancer charities to raise awareness of their work and of the disease, BCAM is also a prime opportunity to remind women to be breast aware for earlier detection." This sounds great doesn't it?

Well, if we look a little deeper, we find that NBCAM 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.

I do want to acknowledge again that cancer treatment drugs are not bad. I'm just saying that it's a fact that pharmaceutical companies spend a lot of money on the research and development of new drugs. Forbes  published an article earlier this year that puts the dollar amount between a high of $12 billion and a low of $55 million (4). Considering the magnitude of expense to produce a drug, pharmaceutical companies must be under an enormous amount of pressure to deliver a drug that will generate revenue and for that they need a disease to treat. As I said earlier, there's no profit in prevention.  

Pink washing -
This brings me to what has come to be known as the "pink washing" of breast cancer. You can read more about this here. The term "pink washer" 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) (2). The point is non-profit organizations accepting donations from companies that stand to gain from their philanthropy seems to represent a conflict of interest to me. It's no wonder that little focus is being placed on breast cancer prevention! It's much more profitable for these powerful industries to keep the emphasis on looking for the so-called "cure", which is really just another word for drug treatment.

Awareness, screening and a cure are NOT prevention -
Let's face it,  awareness, screening and early detection is a means to find disease, not prevent it. A cure is defined as the "restoration of health; recovery from disease" (7). Primary prevention of disease is about avoiding or reducing the risk factors for disease. After over 25 years of seeing pink, I think it's safe to say we are aware of breast cancer. I can't help but wonder where we would be now if that focus had been directed toward the prevention of breast cancer.

Well, we can't go back, but we can take action going forward! Let's think before we let our emotions be swayed by all things pink. Let's do some due diligence when donating to a charity.  Where does our money go?  How much of what is spent on that pink colored item will go toward breast cancer prevention research? What chemicals are in my pink marketed cosmetics or foods that my be adversely affecting my body? What's my elected official's stance on this topic? Let's tell those in government how we feel about these issues. Going forward we can shift the focus from awareness to prevention, because the only way we can be cancer free is by preventing cancer from occurring in the first place! 


(1) Health awareness campaigns and diagnosis rates: Evidence from National Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Grant D. Jacobsena, Kathryn H. Jacobsen, Journal of Health Economics
(2) Breast Cancer Action,
(3) Breast Cancer Action, 
(6) Planning Implementing and Evaluating Health Promotion Programs, James McKenzie, et al, 4th ed., Pearson, 2005.
(7) The Free Dictionary

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