I’m not sure why watching the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc., made me so angry.
I'd read Samantha King’s book, on which the film is loosely based, back in 2008. I reviewed it, along with Gayle Sulik’s similar work on the subject, Pink Ribbon Blues. I recently wrote a blog on Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, a new non-fiction work which, among other things, recounts the discovery of industrial toxins in the author's breast milk. Journalist Florence Williams went on to devote a chapter to the possible association between industrial pollutants and a male cluster of breast cancers. I read Barbara Ehrenreich's essay on the pink machine, followed Dr. Susan Love's research, and admired Breast Cancer Action's Think Before You Pink campaign. So the movie, Pink Ribbons, Inc. didn’t tell me anything I hadn't uncovered in my own research. I knew that even though billions of dollars have been spent, there has been little progress in finding a cure for breast cancer (which now turns out to be ten different diseases).
It could be I’m frustrated on a personal level. Because of my mother’s pre-menopausal cancer history, I was told I was at higher risk and advised to have yearly mammograms—starting at the age of 30. I did so diligently for 25 years. Turns out that many of those visits were a waste of time and money since (a) only 20% of all breast cancers are linked to family history, (b) my breast tissue is dense, and (c) mammograms can’t “read” or “see” cancer in dense breasts. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t worry about the cumulative effects of mammography. But I'm aware that exposure to radiation is connected to the onset of cancer.
Like other women, I feel as though if I do get a diagnosis, it will be my own fault. I worry that I waited too long to have kids, quit nursing too soon, or should have avoided birth control pills in my youth. Maybe I need to lose weight, exercise more, or change my diet. I’m told to limit alcohol. But I need a drink to deal with the pressure of keeping up on news reports of miniscule causal connections. Do I eat broccoli or avoid caffeine? I can’t remember which. And I can’t do a thing about the two risk groups to which I know I belong: being a woman and aging.
When my mother found her lump some 40 years ago, she never once blamed it on her lifestyle. She always thought it had to do with some environmental exposure from her years spent stationed on military bases or growing up in Europe during World War II. The irony is that of all the money raised for awareness and “the cure,” not much has been directed to looking at potential environmental causes. According to Breast Cancer Action, less than two percent of research dollars are spent looking at such links.
Before my most recent mammogram I was led into a private changing room to wait for the radiologist. Hanging on one wall, at eye level, was a small mirror. I checked my reflection and then caught a glimpse of two pink ribbons, glued to either side of the glass. They created a pink frame around my face. It was an unsettling reminder of why I was there. Mammograms don’t prevent breast cancer. Nope. And those pink ribbons served to heighten my fears about what might be found.
I’m mad that I allowed this symbol to distract me from the faces of those dying from this disease. The most powerful moments in the film are when we hear from one of the few support groups for metastatic breast cancer patients. They’re in stage 4, which means it has spread to their other organs. There is no 5th stage. They aren’t preparing to live, but getting ready to die. “We’re human beings, not pink ribbons,” said one of the young women.
I’m tired of supporting the Breast Industrial Complex: those profiting from selling pink products, inventing machines to detect the disease, and creating drugs to treat me once I’m given the bad news. These groups have no incentive to find a cure. They’re not motivated to put themselves out of business.
Any real change starts with me. My mother’s generation spoke out when no one would listen. They fought for awareness, funding, and better medical treatment. One woman started the Susan G. Komen Foundation. And individual women rallied when that organization attempted to disenfranchise others in need. Komen listened. Our voices were heard. But we needed to speak up.
For starters, I’m turning The Breast Life into a pink ribbon free zone. You’ll be seeing more posts from me on how individual actions can make a difference. Join me and occupy the cure.
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