Cancer Is Political

Monday, February 6th, 2012

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.

Susan G. Komen For the Cure Further Sullies Its Reputation

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

A few months ago, Winning Progressive explained how Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization (“Komen”), the fundraising giant that uses pink ribbon themed cause-related marketing and 5K runs to raise money to fund education and research related to breast cancer, has used some of its money to file more than 100 challenges to small mom-and-pop organizations that use the phrase “for the cure” or the color pink to raise money to fight cancer.   Now, another incident has come to light to further demonstrate that, when it comes to the fight against breast cancer, there are far better organizations than Komen for progressives to support.

It was announced earlier today that Komen has decided to end its partnership with Planned Parenthood including cutting off hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding that Komen has been providing for breast cancer screening for low-income women.  While only 3% of Planned Parenthood’s spending is for abortion services, conservatives have long targeted the organization as part of their efforts to deny women the right to choose.  That conservative effort has included boycotting organizations such as Komen that provided funding to Planned Parenthood, and it appears that Komen has given in to such pressure.

Komen claims that it has ended the funding because of a new policy barring partnerships with organizations that are under federal, state, or local investigation.  But the investigation of Planned Parenthood at issue is an obviously politically motivated investigated that Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL) launched after Republicans failed in their effort to defund Planned Parenthood.  And Komen’s de-funding decision comes less than a year after the organization named as its senior vice president in charge of federal and state advocacy efforts Karen Handel, an anti-choice activist who ran unsuccessfully for Governor of Georgia on a platform of ending any state funding to Planned Parenthood.

Over the past five years, Komen’s funding had enabled Planned Parenthood to provide 170,000 clinical breast exams and 6,400 mammogram referrals to low income women who typically lack access to quality health care.  If you are as outraged as we are by how Komen has sullied its reputation and given into right-wing pressure by cutting off such funding:

* Contact the national Komen office at 1-877-465-6636 and your local Komen affiliate, and respectfully let them know how you feel.

* Consider donating what you can to Planned Parenthood

* Support one of the following organizations that are leading the fight against breast cancer:

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.

 

 

Winning Progressive For The Cure

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

The title of this post is a risky one because it could apparently trigger a lawsuit by the Susan G. Komen For the Cure organization (“Komen”).  Komen is, of course, the fundraising giant that uses pink ribbon themed cause-related marketing and numerous 5K runs and fitness walks to raise money to fund education and research related to breast cancer.  Unfortunately, Komen also reportedly uses some of that money to prevent other organizations from using the phrase “for the cure” or the color pink to raise money to fight cancer.  As reported in Huffington Post:

In addition to raising millions of dollars a year for breast cancer research, fundraising giant Susan G. Komen for the Cure has a lesser-known mission that eats up donor funds: patrolling the waters for other charities and events around the country that use any variation of “for the cure” in their names.

So far, Komen has identified and filed legal trademark oppositions against more than a hundred of these Mom and Pop charities, including Kites for a Cure, Par for The Cure, Surfing for a Cure and Cupcakes for a Cure–and many of the organizations are too small and underfunded to hold their ground.

(A note to Komen’s lawyers – if you don’t want us to use the phrase “for the cure,” how about “for a cure” if we don’t really care which cure is found?  Or maybe “for ‘da cure” given that we are from Chicago?  Or “for z’ cure” if we take up French?  Also, can we say “for The Cure” if we actually just support the 1980′s rock band?  Please clarify.)

October is, of course, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is when much of the US becomes awash in pink ribbons and other reminders about a horrible disease that kills approximately 40,000 women and 450 men per year.  Thanks to the efforts of Komen and others, it is hard to find a grocery store, coffee shop, sporting event, or shopping mall that is not festooned in pink ribbons, often accompanied by the claim that your purchase of a particular product will lead to the donation of money to breast cancer awareness or research.  The “pinking” of America is so complete that even the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders are prancing around in pink costumes in a stadium that is blanketed in pink. 

All of this pink has done some good.  For example, over the past 29 years, Komen has reportedly raised $1.9 billion for breast cancer education and research efforts.  In addition, by aggressively discussing the issue, Komen and others have undoubtedly played a role in making breast cancer something that is openly spoken about rather than treated as a taboo subject.

But before you get caught up in the annual pink-a-thon, it is valuable to think about three serious problems with the pink cause-related marketing approach to addressing breast cancer.

1. How much money is being donated and to whom?

As the folks at Breast Cancer Action explain at their great site Think Before You Pink, customers who purchase pink products on the belief that their purchase will benefit breast cancer causes have little way to know how much good they are actually doing.  For example, many companies do not say how much they are donating per purchase, the total amount they will donate as part of a particular campaign, or to what organizations such donations are being made.  It is also important to evaluate whether the company doing the cause-related marketing also produces products that increase people’s cancer risks.  For example, the pink KFC bucket above is from a Komen-KFC promotion that involved donations to Komen for every bucket of chicken sold.  There is strong evidence that a diet high in the type of fat-laden food that KFC serves increases one’s cancer risk.  In such situations, the cause related marketing is arguably as much or more about pink-washing a company’s corporate image as it is about trying to raise money to fight cancer.  

2. What actions are being funded?

The next major question to ask about the pink-a-thon is what actions the money that is being raised is going towards.  While some of the money is going towards valuable research, most of it is going towards raising “awareness” and funding mammograms for poor women.  But federally funded free mammograms are already widely available and, as the blogger at Uneasy Pink recently said, “is there anyone, anywhere, who is NOT aware of breast cancer?’  Far more important in the fight against breast cancer is making affordable health care available to all in order to close disparities in cancer health outcomes, increasing funding for the National Cancer Institute and other federal research into breast cancer treatments, and reducing chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA) and industrial air and water pollutants that are linked to increased cancer risks.  Such issues are politically controversial, however, and so organizations that rely heavily on cause-related marketing relationships with major corporations are unlikely to take aggressive stands on them.   

3. Are we supplanting political activism?

A third problem with the pink-a-thon is that it discourages the type of political involvement that is needed to get at the root of tackling cancer.  The regulatory and tax policies that will be needed to achieve national health insurance, stricter environmental protections, and even increased federal research will not be achieved through 5K races or cause-related marketing.  Instead, they will require millions of Americans who are affected by cancer to demand and organize for political change.  But when people talk about getting involved in addressing to cancer, our society pushes them to do something safe like participate in a 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 calling their Congressperson or writing a letter to their local newspaper editor.   As such, it is critical that we do not let the annual pink-a-thon lull us into the false security that we are “doing something” and that, therefore, we somehow do not need to engage in the type of political advocacy that will be needed to actually have a chance to find the cure. 

The good news is that there are alternatives to the pink marketing industrial complex that has been built up around breast cancer.   Here are three organizations Winning Progressive recommends that our readers check out and support:

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.

And to learn more about the pitfalls of the annual pink-a-thon approach to cancer, check out the book Pink Ribbons, Inc., which has also recently been made into a documentary.