After the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation’s troubling decision last week to end funding of Planned Parenthood (which, contrary to media reports, Komen did not actually reverse) many writers criticized Komen for “politicizing” breast cancer. The implication of this criticism is that breast cancer is somehow a non-political issue that everyone can agree needs to be addressed. Or, as Ross Douthat said in his New York Times column this past Sunday, one of the “truths” about the Komen issue is “that the fight against breast cancer is unifying and completely uncontroversial.”
The problem with this view of breast cancer as a non-political issue is that it is simply not accurate. Instead, the Komen/Planned Parenthood controversy should serve as a reminder to all of us that cancer is and always has been an intensely political issue. Everyone will say that they want to fight cancer, but the steps need to actually reduce the incidence of cancer, improve treatment of cancers that are not prevented, and to ultimately find a cure all require controversial actions that often face stiff resistance.
For example, a large part of cancer prevention is researching the carcinogenic impact of pesticides and other chemicals, pollution, and products such as tobacco, and then using the results of such research to regulate or ban such carcinogens. Such research is controversial and, therefore, difficult to fund, and efforts to regulate or ban carcinogens invariably meet with stiff resistance from whatever entities are profiting off the use of those substances or products.
Similarly, perhaps the most important step we can take to improve the treatment of cancer is to make sure that everyone has access to quality health insurance and care, both so cancers are diagnosed at earlier stages and so cancer patients can afford the treatment. As we have all seen with the fight over President Obama’s health care reform legislation and the GOP’s efforts to abolish Medicare, increasing access to health insurance is a highly controversial topic that requires massive political organizing to achieve. And treatment of cancer also raises other political issues regarding the prices that pharmaceutical companies charge for their products and the tradeoffs involved in providing procedures or pharmaceuticals that extend life for only a few weeks or months yet cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
As for finding the cure, there are critical political questions regarding the levels of funding that go into medical research, what diseases those research dollars go towards, and how to balance the public interest in widely distributing the results of promising research with corporations’ interests in preserving whatever rights they may have in such research. None of these issues are non-controversial and all of them require aggressive political advocacy in order for us to make progress in tackling breast cancer and other diseases.
Our biggest problem with Komen is that it has largely shoved these political issues into the background and lulled millions of Americans into thinking that it is enough to simply wear a pink ribbon, buy a cup of yogurt, do a 5k run, or otherwise raise “awareness” about breast cancer. But the regulatory and tax policies that will be needed to achieve national health insurance, the stricter environmental protections need to reduce the incidence of cancer, and the increased federal research will not be achieved through 5K races, pink ribbons, or yogurt cup lids. Instead, what is needed is for the millions of Americans who are affected by cancer to demand and organize for political change. But when people talk about getting involved in addressing cancer, the typical focus today is to do something safe like participate in a Komen 5K run. And when people are constantly surrounded by claims that they are making a difference by, for example, buying a cup of coffee with a pink ribbon on it, they are less likely to see the need to take more substantive action such as getting involved in a political campaign, calling their Congressperson, or writing a letter to their local newspaper editor.
If there is a potential silver lining to the Komen/Planned Parenthood situation it is that it will hopefully remind all of us that cancer is political. As such, we should be focusing our time and resources on organizations that are engaging in hard-nosed political advocacy, not simply perpetuating a pink ribbon industrial complex. As we’ve noted in our previous posts on this topic, here are three organizations that we think understand that cancer is political and are taking action accordingly:
Breast Cancer Action (“BCA”) - the self-styled “watchdog of the breast cancer movement,” BCA focuses on advocating for policies that will reduce environmental exposures that increase cancer risks, address social inequalities that lead to disparities in health outcomes, and reducing the toxicity of cancer treatments.
National Breast Cancer Coalition - an organization that advocates for funding for meaningful breast cancer research and providing everyone with access to quality cancer care, with the goal of ending breast cancer by January 1, 2020.
Breast Cancer Fund - an organization that focuses on identifying, educating the public about, and eliminating the environmental and other preventable causes of cancer.