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Pink Ribbon Scandal: A Campaign of Neglect

By Jody McCutcheon

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, which means people will be walking, running and donating to Pink Ribbon campaigns worldwide in support of Breast Cancer Awareness. A noble cause, certainly, yet an important question lingers: where does all that money go?

We here at Eluxe have already written about the problem of pinkwashing. Now we’d like to address another troubling trend: the money raised by Pink Ribbon campaigns and subsequently donated to cancer organizations tends to amount to nothing short of corporate welfare–in other words, the money raised by kind individuals with good intentions goes mainly to some of the largest profit making companies in the world, who use that cash mainly to fund high-tech medical ‘cures’ which have proven so far to be expensive, invasive and not always effective.

Big Investment, Little Return

According to the insightful documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc, millions of dollars each year are earmarked for cancer research in the US and Canada. Charitable donations account for a large amount of that infusion. For example, in 2013, the Susan G. Komen Foundation donated over $43 million to the cause, and since 1982 has poured in over $800 million. Estee Lauder gave over $58 million to cancer research in 2013 through the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, and has infused over half a billion dollars since 1993. That’s a lot of money from just two organizations. To give an idea of overall numbers, consider that in Canada, in 2009 alone, over $540 million was spent on cancer research.

Yet of all the money raised in the US and Canada through Pink Ribbon campaigns, only fifteen percent goes to breast cancer prevention research, says Pink Ribbons, Inc. But mainstream medicine’s idea of ‘prevention’ lies in matters like heredity, ethnicity and personal health—which are important determinants of cancer risk, to be sure. But perhaps as important are environmental factors such as plastic production–but less than five percent of funds raised in the US and Canada are devoted to such causes. Ironically, some of the ‘pink ribbon’ branded products that raise money for cancer research are themselves often packed full of ingredients that are thought to cause cancer–namely, certain ingredients in skincare, makeup and plastic products, which we shall see more of later.


Importance Of Prevention

The National Institute of Health (NIH) has labeled many commonly found compounds as known human carcinogens. This list includes asbestos, arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde and tobacco smoke, as well as countless pesticides and herbicides used in agriculture that contribute to rising cancer rates.

Plastic production creates similar environmental problems. As a cheap, durable material, plastic is basically ubiquitous—especially via improper disposal—from bags to polyester fibres to beverage bottles. Common examples include polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used for pipes for our drinking water, bisphenol A (BPA), used for some kinds of plastic bottles, and the softening agent di-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), found in cosmetics and clothes softeners. Whatever acronym they go by, chances are these chemicals are in your home, and have been associated with various cancers and adverse effects on internal organs and bone formation.

Shockingly, there is little to no regulation of such potentially harmful compounds. The policy of the FDA in America is ‘it’s safe until proven otherwise’–the problem being of course, that millions of people may die before a chemical is proven unsafe. In the US alone, close to 80,000 chemicals are on the market, many of them completely unstudied and unregulated and which likely contribute to many cancers, including breast, brain, colon, lung, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and pancreatic. By being precautionary than reactionary—that is, by taking preventative action rather than reacting only to direct evidence of harm—it makes sense that cancer rates would be lower and lives could be saved.

Instead of prevention, though, almost all of that Pink Ribbon (and other cancer awareness drive) donation money funds huge corporations to research and developm those areas that are the biggest cancer cash cows: detection (e.g., mammography) and treatment (e.g., pharmaceuticals). In other words, our donations go are a form of ‘corporate welfare,’ and not only do companies take our donation money, they also earn profits by charging us for treatments our donations help them discover.

Looking at statistics, it seems those corporations don’t deserve that ‘welfare’. While rates of death from other killer diseases, namely heart disease, stroke and influenza, have been slashed, cancer death rates have stayed essentially the same for almost 70 years–and this is despite the billions of dollars poured into research. The number of people getting cancer, however, has risen sharply around the world. Isn’t it time to put money into researching why?

To highlight how corporations are focusing on the wrong areas for reducing cancer rates, a recent Swiss Medical Board study, written up in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests mammography isn’t necessarily worth the radiation-exposure risk for target candidates because it over-diagnoses and doesn’t lead to lower death rates. In fact, Europe is witnessing a growing trend of phasing out mammography in average-risk women, yet it remains status quo in the US, and companies continue to make huge profits by selling mammography machines. Despite all the money being thrown at Pink Ribbon, breast cancer rates are set to rise by a whopping 50% by 2030. Perhaps if companies focused instead on finding the reasons behind why breast cancer rates are rising, we wouldn’t need to worry so much about high tech detection in the first place!

A Shameful History

What few people know is that the origins of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) was launched by AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company that sells cancer treatments–as well as cancer causing pesticides. Its subsidiary, GB Bioscience, was even sued by the city of Houston after it was found that it had dumped toxic chemicals in the local water table and soil.

One of the first companies to support BCAM was Estee Lauder, a company which packs in plenty of potentially carcinogenic chemicals into their cosmetics. And where do the most of the millions on millions of dollars raised by Estee Lauder go to? You guessed it–AstraZeneca. No wonder Karuna Jaggar, the executive director of Breast Cancer Action, called October ‘Breast Cancer Industry Month’, the month when “corporations make money professing how much they care about cancer by selling pink ribbon products” only to plough that money back into other partnering corporations.

These huge corporations make billions off what’s called ’cause marketing.’ They deliberately target products that can be given as gifts to those with cancer–teddy bears, T-shirts, pillows, junk foods, purses, and makeup–most of which either directly contain harmful chemicals that can harm our health, or create them in their manufacturing process. These companies cynically make money by playing up to our love of friends and family with the disease. They try to sell our fundraising as ’empowering’, but the only ones who are truly gaining more power (and profits) are the companies themselves.

Make October More Special

Clearly, cancer research isn’t working. Billions have been spent on it over the past two decades, yet cancer death rates have barely dropped at all. It seems Pink Ribbon funds companies that are hell bent on treating cancer with expensive, high-tech methods that barely increase our survival rate at all, when they should instead be focused on uncovering the root causes of cancer, and pressuring governments to eliminate them.

We need to end this ‘blame the victim’ approach to cancer. As leading international authority on cancer Dr Samuel Epstein states, rather than blaming women for not eating the right foods or having the wrong genes, we need to focus on ‘avoidable exposures to industrial carcinogens contaminating air, food, water, consumer products and the workplace.’

If you really care about stopping cancer from taking lives, perhaps we should be ‘walking for the cause’ and not the cure. Personally, I’m donating my money to environmental groups. It seems they may be far more effective in stemming the causes of why this disease is spreading rapidly, instead of just selling us an ineffective but profitable ‘cure’.

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  • Reply
    Oct 9, 2015 at 2:29 am

    This is a really interesting article on a very emotional topic. The intention of every 10k walker, head shaver & coffee morning host is good and heartfelt. Often driven by loss. The possibility that your money may be ill spent or that a chosen target is less than deserving is really disheartening!

    Would you share some of the alternative groups you support? Others may want to follow your lead but not know where to start.

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