Below are various quotes from the essay “Welcome to Cancerland” by Barbara Ehrenreich to get us ready for “National Breast Cancer Industry Month.” (Thanks for the link, Dorian!) This was written in 2001, but not much has changed. Before being guilted into buying pink things, or things with pink ribbons on them (like yogurt), consider the observations and ideas below.
Ehrenreich on why breast cancer is such a big corporate cause:
It is the very blandness of breast cancer, at least in mainstream perceptions, that makes it an attractive object of corporate charity and a way for companies to brand themselves friends of the middle-aged female market. With breast cancer, “there was no concern that you might actually turn off your audience because of the life style or sexual connotations that AIDS has,” Amy Langer, director of the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations, told the New York Times in 1996. “That gives corporations a certain freedom and a certain relief in supporting the cause.” Or as Cindy Pearson, director of the National Women’s Health Network, the organizational progeny of the Women’s Health Movement, puts it more caustically: “Breast cancer provides a way of doing something for women, without being feminist.”
On the normalization of breast cancer as a rite of passage:
The First Year of the Rest of Your Life, a collection of brief narratives with a foreword by Nancy Brinker and a share of the royalties going to the Komen Foundation, is filled with such testimonies to the redemptive powers of the disease: “I can honestly say I am happier now than I have ever been in my life — even before the breast cancer.” “For me, breast cancer has provided a good kick in the rear to get me started rethinking my life.” “I have come out stronger, with a new sense of priorities.” Never a complaint about lost time, shattered sexual confidence, or the long-term weakening of the arms caused by lymph-node dissection and radiation. What does not destroy you, to paraphrase Nietzsche, makes you a spunkier, more evolved, sort of person.
The effect of this relentless brightsiding is to transform breast cancer into a rite of passage — not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against, but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or graying hair. Everything in mainstream breast cancer culture serves, no doubt inadvertently, to tame and normalize the disease: the diagnosis may be disastrous, but there are those cunning pink rhinestone angel pins to buy and races to train for. Even the heavy traffic in personal narratives and practical tips, which I found so useful, bears an implicit acceptance of the disease and the current barbarous approaches to its treatment: you can get so busy comparing attractive head scarves that you forget to question a form of treatment that temporarily renders you both bald and immuno-incompetent. Understood as a rite of passage, breast cancer resembles the initiation rites so exhaustively studied by Mircea Eliade: First there is the selection of the initiates — by age in the tribal situation, by mammogram or palpation here. Then come the requisite ordeals — scarification or circumcision within traditional cultures, surgery and chemotherapy for the cancer patient. Finally, the initiate emerges into a new and higher status — an adult and a warrior — or in the case of breast cancer, a “survivor.”
On how breast cancer also functions as a cult or religion:
“Culture” is too weak a word to describe all this. What has grown up around breast cancer in just the last fifteen years more nearly resembles a cult — or, given that it numbers more than two million women, their families, and friends-perhaps we should say a full-fledged religion. The products — teddy bears, pink-ribbon brooches, and so forth — serve as amulets and talismans, comforting the sufferer and providing visible evidence of faith. The personal narratives serve as testimonials and follow the same general arc as the confessional autobiographies required of seventeenth-century Puritans: first there is a crisis, often involving a sudden apprehension of mortality (the diagnosis or, in the old Puritan case, a stem word from on high); then comes a prolonged ordeal (the treatment or, in the religious case, internal struggle with the Devil); and finally, the blessed certainty of salvation, or its breast-cancer equivalent, survivorhood. And like most recognized religions, breast cancer has its great epideictic events, its pilgrimages and mass gatherings where the faithful convene and draw strength from their numbers. These are the annual races for a cure, attracting a total of about a million people at more than eighty sites — 70,000 of them at the largest event, in Washington, D.C., which in recent years has been attended by Dan and Marilyn Quayle and Al and Tipper Gore. Everything comes together at the races: celebrities and corporate sponsors are showcased; products are hawked; talents, like those of the “Swinging, Singing Survivors” from Syracuse, New York, are displayed. It is at the races, too, that the elect confirm their special status. As one participant wrote in the Washington Post:
I have taken my “battle scarred” breasts to the Mall, donned the pink shirt, visor, pink shoelaces, etc. and walked proudly among my fellow veterans of the breast cancer war. In 1995, at the age of 44, I was diagnosed and treated for Stage II breast cancer. The experience continues to redefine my life.
And on races, walks, etc. (Race for the Cure, Relay for Life, and so on):
Feminist breast-cancer activists, who in the early nineties were organizing their own mass outdoor events — demonstrations, not races — to demand increased federal funding for research, tend to keep their distance from these huge, corporate-sponsored, pink gatherings. Ellen Leopold, for example — a member of the Women’s Community Cancer Project in Cambridge and author of A Darker Ribbon: Breast Cancer, Women, and Their Doctors in the Twentieth Century — has criticized the races as an inefficient way of raising money. She points out that the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, which sponsors three-day, sixty-mile walks, spends more than a third of the money raised on overhead and advertising, and Komen may similarly fritter away up to 25 percent of its gross. At least one corporate-charity insider agrees. “It would be much easier and more productive,” says Rob Wilson, an organizer of charitable races for corporate clients, “if people, instead of running or riding, would write out a check to the charity.”
She also points out elsewhere that the races/walks/survivor events place the cultural attention on the survivability of breast cancer and sidestep the many women who die from it. If it’s true that only 5% of breast-cancer research funding goes to research on metastatic disease (per Lisa Bonchek Adams), this might be part of the reason why.