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It’s Time to Re-Think Pink

Movie about the commercialization of breast cancerI know it should no longer come as a surprise when a politician cheats on a spouse, a corporation lies or a celebrity makes a racist/sexist/homophobic remark — but every once in a while a kind of betrayal occurs that catches you so off-guard, it hits you to the core of your being and changes the way you look at everything.

This happened to me last week when the Susan G. Komen Foundation – that beloved icon to whom I’ve donated for years — announced they would no longer be funding Planned Parenthood. Really? When did breast cancer become political? Why would an organization that claims to support women suddenly turn against them? What would the real Susan G. Komen have thought about this?

My anger and disgust at Komen has only grown stronger since watching Pink Ribbons, Inc., a powerful documentary by writer/director Lea Pool about the commercialization of the breast cancer movement. Elin Stebbins Waldal, author of Tornado Warning: A Memoir of Teen Dating Violence and its Effect on a Woman’s Life, suggested I take a look at it, saying, “After watching this film, I can’t ignore the enormous billboard message now erected in my head which begs the question: Who and what is benefiting from the ‘pinkification’ of breast cancer – because it sure doesn’t seem to be women or our health.”

Based on the book, Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, by Samantha King – who appears along with A-listers like Dr. Susan Love, author Barbara Ehrenreich and a support group of women diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer – the film reveals so many shocking facts, I often gasped out loud at the extent to which all of us who gladly donate money year after year have been duped.

Think about this: the emphasis in breast cancer research is on finding a cure despite experts’ beliefs that the urgency is in finding the cause – after all, one in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer today while back in the 1940s, it was one in 22 women. That means that, despite the billions – billions – of dollars raised for research, the number of women with breast cancer has almost tripled. Something is obviously wrong. Unfortunately, though, it’s the cures which will reap financial benefits: after all, cures mean products – pills, shots, medications – which are a dream come true for the pharmaceutical companies. The cause angle, on the other hand, is a little tricky for the corporate sponsors – especially since many of them are likely to be the actual culprits.

For example, Yoplait launched a big promotion, donating ten cents for every yogurt lid customers send back to them. Okay, this is just plain silly, given the fact that you could write a small donation check for the same amount without buying all that yogurt and going through all that hassle and postage. Regardless, at the same time, Yoplait was discovered to be one of the biggest “pinkwashers” – a company using the pink ribbon as a public relations tool, often to deflect from the image of an unhealthy product. Here they were, promising to support breast cancer research while filling their product with rBGH, the bovine growth hormone linked to causing the disease. This is exactly what the investment bankers who took down the economy did – they played both sides of the fence, selling bad mortgages and then betting against them.

Angry consumers were responsible for convincing Yoplait to stop using rBGH in its milk – “Ordinary people do a simple thing like write a letter, and it changes the world,” says one expert — and this film shows why it’s time for us to get angry again.

Barbara Ehrenreich says we need to return to the streets — not to run, walk, jump or hop for the cure but to march in protest. The comfort of “pink” has softened the disease and given it a warm, fuzzy feel that any woman with breast cancer will tell you is way off base (see video below). Breast cancer has been used to sell millions of pink products, including fast food and guns, making corporations rich and doing little to advance research in the field. In what one expert calls “the most insidious” use, the Bush administration actually embraced breast cancer awareness as an international diplomacy tool.

So what are we supposed to do now? To begin with, let’s shake off the complacency and pretend it’s the 1960s again. Let’s write letters, get out and protest, research organizations before donating money – and make sure the vast majority of an organization’s donations go directly to research. And let’s check out what kind of research it’s funding.

When I heard that Komen was de-funding Planned Parenthood, I immediately did what any self-respecting pro-choice female would do. I picked up my credit card and made a donation to Planned Parenthood in “honor” of Karen Handel, the politically-motivated Komen V.P. behind the decision – and I provided her address at Komen so she would receive an acknowledgement of my gift.

Because so many others did the same thing, Planned Parenthood received record donations, Karen Handel resigned and Komen vowed to reinstate funding. Personally, I will never believe another word from that organization – CEO Nancy Brinker showed her true colors with that misguided decision, and I will never support Komen again. But the whole incident showed that anger could be a very effective tool. Women are trained from an early age to be “good girls” and not cause a scene. But if we remain quiet, there’s a whole group of dangerous Republican politicians ready to make the decisions for us about what we can and can’t do with our own bodies. We caused a revolution here and it should be very empowering for us to see what we can accomplish when we take action. We’ve already made a difference.

I urge everyone to see Pink Ribbons, Inc. Yes, it will disillusion you. It will make you sad and it will make you angry. It will make you start writing emails to the cosmetics companies, demanding to know exactly what’s in those chemicals they use and how they’ve been tested. It will make you do your own research.

This film will make you stop racing for the cure, and start fighting to find the cause. Most importantly, it will make you stop seeing that ugly disease — breast cancer — through pink-colored glasses.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.


  1. Bravo. And thank you for the heads up on the movie Pink Ribbons!

  2. THANK YOU FOR THIS! what a breath of fresh air. i have been silently disgusted by this “pink washing” and corporate profiteering — using breast cancer to sell stuff.. but you just put into words what i have been thinking and i am so grateful! sharing this article far and wide

  3. Indeed. Thank you for this. I’ve always been suspicious of charities that spend big money on tchotchkes and litigating against other charities. I’ve not seen the movie, but I was already done with komen forever last week:

  4. Women’s rights are hard won and easily lost. Thanks for speaking out.
    Women have been emotionally exploited by pink-washing.Shame.

  5. Sharon Stanley says:

    I had heard this about the Komen organization, and about other breast cancer support groups. Very few of their funding goes to help breast cancer patients, families or fund research. It was a surprise to learn that on Long Island, only the LI2Day Walk and Previvors and Survivors .com spend 100% on breast cancer patients, families or funding.

  6. joseph hugh o'brien says:

    we should thank the recent decision of komen to withhold funds from planned parenthood … much about komen has come out since that decision and now we know that it would be better to support foundations that help women … a very good article … thank you …

  7. Wow – I will share this with all my friends. Just sickening but in retrospect makes sense. There’s a lot of people who should be ashamed of themselves!

  8. thank you for enlightening me, lois!
    your friend,

  9. Jan Binder says:

    Thanks for writing this important piece. Some caution needs to be taken, however, in making the leap from fewer women diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1940s to the conclusion that fewer women had the disease then. Particularly in giving absolute numbers. Much greater efforts are now made to diagnose the disease. Seeing more breast cancer now may be due to looking harder for it. Still, your point about the importance of researching causes, not just cures, is an invaluable one.

  10. I cried as I watched the woman with breast cancer tell her story on the video. I hope your article is circulated and read by people who will now research charities/companies to which they donate their money. Thank you, Lois.

  11. Tricia van Dockum says:

    What an enlightening article on a topic that I have been thinking about for a long time. I am not a huge fan of Planned Parenthood and all that they stand for as I do believe that once conceived, that fetus has a spirit, but I do find the “glamorization of cancer” very troubling.

  12. bravo.

  13. Alison Skier says:

    Where did you watch it? I’d like to see this film.

  14. I will be forwarding this article and videos to lots and lots of friends…

  15. Gale MacWilliams says:


    Check out the article above. Maxine Berman states things very clearly. I especially like the line…”Komen’s greatest problem is that it has forgotten there is a woman attached to the breast”.

  16. how do we see the film in michigan?

  17. “When ordinary people do a simple thing, it changes the world” — I love this because I know I am capable of doing a simple thing (I can probably do something more complicated, too, but simple is usually better), and it’s clear the world needs to be changed. And together, we are very powerful.

  18. MaryBeth L. says:

    The responses you have received from your readers reinforces my belief that enlightened people can make changes happen. I think your article is that “wake up” call.

  19. This extremely well-written article touches on all the things that disturb me about the Komen Foundation uproar. Indeed, we need to focus on cause at LEAST as much as cure, and this is a point that is overlooked for all the reasons cited in your article. I consider myself politically to be an independent. I think more than Republicans are culpable here. It is easy to see this as a liberal vs conservative issue. I disagree. A lot of politicians on both sides of the aisle have a vested interest in perpetuating the curative versus preventative model of care.
    Thank you for writing this.

  20. We know a significant part of the cause! Lack of breastfeeding! A woman who breastfeeds her own kids has around a 1/3 (depending g on which studies you look at) less chance of getting it. Every mention if breast cancer should include a reminder to young women to protect themselves by placing a priority on breastfeeding their babies!

  21. Thank you so much for this post. I work for the NFB, which produced and is distributing this film in Canada. For those of you asking, the film is being distributed by First Run Features in the US, and will have an early spring theatrical release.

    Also? I love this blog. I love the *idea* of this blog. So glad I found it.

  22. Thanks so much for posting this!

  23. I have breast cancer and have had a masectomy. I applaud the lady in your video for her courage, truthfulness and ability to “tell it like it is”. She said words I have thought and felt. Thanks so much for your well-thought out article and its suggestions. You’re right.. We have to fight to find out the cause. I would love it, if that could be found, so others could someday soon be spared what I and other breast cancer survivors have gone through. I am equally appalled at the recent political statements of the Koman foundation and also will never contribute to them again because of it. Cancer isn’t politics.. It’s fighting an insidious opponent, just to stay alive. It’s tiring and frustrating and demeaning. All of us in this fight need your help. Thank you.

  24. Donna Hebert says:

    THANK YOU! I am a 10-year survivor of stage 3 breast cancer and I’m SO over pink I could barf (but I already did that for long enough during treatment). It’s time for big business to stop poisoning us with carcinogens, pesticides and industrial waste in our food and water, carcinogens in our personal care products and household goods and an endless litany of unnecessary medications whose side effects include making us sick, sometimes to death. It’s time for us to wise up and stop being sheep, consuming whatever ‘new’ product comes along, regardless of the hidden costs to health and the environment. Along with our children and grandchildren, every man and woman we know who was taken away by cancer needs us to speak for them. Thank you for speaking the truth.

  25. Elizabeth Marsack says:

    Cosmetics testing? It does not exist. There is no legal standard nor requirement regarding the testing of any cosmetic or hygiene product. Challenge companies like Estée Lauder and others who are supporters of Komen, but don’t answer to why certain chemicals are in their products. If you can, find books like “Not Just a pretty Face” and learn about the cosmetics industry.

  26. Thank you for this informative and thought-provoking article. I needed Planned Parenthood fifty years ago, and they were there for me then, and now, if needed. I’ve always been skeptical of Komen … just too good to be true is indeed just that.
    To the young women: Nurse your babies! Protect your girls! For ten years of my life, 32 to 44 … well, 12 years! … I was either/and/or nursing or pregnant. I nursed my three babies for 2-1/2 years each. My choice … and theirs.
    To the working women: Beware of stress … that will give you both breast and uterine cancer. We are not men; we do not have the physical system to tolerate stress.
    I’m inclined to think women’s lib is a crock. Yes, we deserve to be well educated. Yes, we deserve to be paid equally. And we can do it all, just not all at the same time.
    What’s important? Your health? Rearing the next generation to be successful survivors? Make a list! Stick to it!
    Know thyself. We are female. Be a woman!

  27. “… stop racing for the cure, and start fighting to find the cause.”

  28. Every woman—and every man who loves a woman—should read this blog post and watch these videos. Until reading your extraordinary
    essay I didn’t know about this documentary.The second video infuriated me further. Lois, thank you for shedding light on this subject—my head was in the sand. It’s not anymore. Congratulations on winning a VOTY People’s Choice award for this. Quite frankly, it deserves a Pulitzer.

  29. AMEN.

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