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The Truth About Cancer Charities and Pinkwashing

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The truth about cancer charities by Janet Maker, Ph.D.

Pinktober is here. All the cancer charities are asking for our money and our time. Some want us to raise money for them by running in marathons, and every October we are encouraged to buy products that wear pink ribbons. Cancer patients and their supporters have responded with great generosity. But all cancer charities are not equal.

Sadly, many of the cancer charities have been corrupted, taking corporate money and participating in pinkwashing. (Pinkwashing got its name from greenwashing, a practice in which environmental organizations endorse polluters that give them contributions. They justify it because the contributions enable them to do good things for the environment, but the practice of greenwashing also enables the polluters to continue polluting.)

Possibly the most stunning example of pinkwashing was Susan G. Komen for the Cure's partnership with Baker Hughes, a corporation that engages in fracking, a process that poisons the environment with known and suspected carcinogens. Using the cute tagline, "Doing their bit for the cure," Baker Hughes produced 1,000 pink drill bits and shipped them to drill sites in pink-topped containers containing information about breast health. The Komen organization reportedly received $100,0001

The breast-cancer culture received a scathing critique in the 2011 film Pink Ribbons, Inc. (available on Netflix). Canadian director Lea Pool and her co-writers began with Samantha King's book, Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, and King is one of the movie's main voices. Also featured are Barbara Ehrenreich, a breast cancer survivor and author of Nickeled and Dimed; former surgeon Dr. Susan Love, author of Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book and a skeptic of "slash, burn and poison" treatments; and Barbara Brenner, former leader of Breast Cancer Action. 3

Defending the breast-cancer culture was Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, an organization which at that time had raised $1.9 billion for breast-cancer research. The film raised the point that we don't have much to show for all that money in terms of results. Commentators on-screen discussed problems with the research, saying that it is poorly coordinated and badly focused, with very little spent on environmental causes and prevention, despite the evidence that the overwhelming majority of breast cancer cases are caused by environmental factors. In the words of one reviewer:

" the most important thing that Pink Ribbons, Inc. accomplishes is to urge us to look hard at what charities like Komen for the Cure are really saying about breast cancer, those who have it, and the companies trying to "pinkwash" themselves for profit or to insulate themselves from criticism. Because when looked at all together, the message seems to be that instead of demanding safeguards and accountability from corporations and governments that allow known cancer-causing chemicals into the products we use, the food we eat and the environment we live in, women should smile, put on a pink ribbon, donate to Komen and place the responsibility for both avoiding or surviving breast cancer on themselves. 4

In 2012 the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation made an apparently politically-motivated cut to its grants to Planned Parenthood to provide mammograms to low-income women. After a massive public outcry, the foundation backed down, but people started looking more closely at Komen's corporate partnerships and the fact that they focus on curing breast cancer instead of preventing it, and some began wondering if Komen is providing pink ribbons as cover for companies that increase the load of carcinogens in the environment. Could it be that the focus of research is kept off prevention because prevention would turn public attention to the toxins that corporations are releasing into every aspect of our lives?

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Janet is also the author of "The Thinking Woman's Guide to Breast Cancer: (more...)
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