Since last year's October Breast Cancer Awareness month, I've gone from weary of pink to turned off by it. Pink ribbons have become a more visible symbol of autumn than the pumpkin.
What I am about to write is subject to misinterpretation, so I'll start by clarifying. My mother, two of my sisters and numerous friends have survived the breast cancer scourge. When I lived in Lodi, I was on the Board of Directors of the local American Cancer Society.
In short, I'm "aware" of breast cancer. But since only my family and closest friends know of my personal involvement, I'm considering painting my house pink so I'll be in step with the rest of the nation.
To give you a few examples of how comical pink is, last Saturday I tuned into watch NCAA football. The University of Michigan head coach, Rich Rodriguez, wore a pink cap. That evening, I turned to the major league baseball play-off; the announcers wore plastic pink ribbons on their lapels. Then on Sunday afternoon, the most absurd spectacle of all: 300-pound NFL players had pink shoes on.
I'm sure the American Cancer Society doesn't want people laughing at its deadly serious message. But it's hard not to shake my head in dismay at how misguided the pink effort is while I'm being engulfed by it on television, in magazines and at the mall.
Fortunately, advocates more influential than me are urging common sense. Medical sociologist Gayle A. Sulik's new book, "Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health," fears that pink sends the wrong message to an uninformed America. On her website, Sulik wrote: "The pervasiveness of the pink ribbon campaign leads many people to believe that the fight against breast cancer is progressing, when in truth it's barely begun."
Sulik is skeptical about what she calls the "financial incentives that keep the war on breast cancer profitable." The Susan G. Komen Foundation, Sulik reports, annually sponsors over 125 annual "Races for the Cure" But the events have more than 200 corporate partners that Sulik speculates may present a conflict of interest.
Without question, part of pink is financial gain. Whether it's a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company or a trinket manufacturer, the cash register is ringing. On Amazon, more than 3,000 pink items are for sale, many in bulk for "fund raising purposes." For $200, upscale shoppers can buy a sterling silver, three dimensional Breast Cancer Awareness Hershey's Kiss pendant. Or you can sell "pink" on eBay and help a cancer nonprofit.
Although most vendors pledge that some percentage of their profits will be donated to cancer charities, my educated guess is that the shared sum is small compared to the profits reaped. Every time I see anything pink, I imagine an assembly line worker somewhere in a distant Third World country cranking out ribbons 14 hours a day for pennies in salary.
Another activist group, the Washington, D.C.-based National Breast Cancer coalition, has set as its goal eliminating the disease by 2020. While that may be too optimistic, the organization urges Americans to "peel back the pink and go beyond awareness to into action to end breast cancer."
Here's food for thought. According to National Institute of Health estimates, in the United States during 2010, 207,090 women and 1,970 men will get breast cancer while 39,840 women and 390 men will likely die from the disease. The estimated 2010 cases of prostate cancer — all affecting men — is higher: 217,730 cases from which 32,050 will die.
Yet in fiscal year 2009, breast cancer research received $872 million in federal funding. Prostate cancer received $390 million.
Breast cancer is a terrifying and often fatal disease that deserves our attention. But too much pink hurts the cause. And it deflects concern from other deadly forms of cancer.
Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. He is a Senior Writing Fellow at Californians for Population Stabilization. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.