The Breast Cancer Agenda: How Commercialized Breast Cancer Discourse Harms Women

Note: This research essay was submitted for a third-year composition course I took. The Works Cited list can be found at the end of the essay for reference. Please ignore the inaccurate MLA formatting and lack of indentation (I couldn’t get WordPress to allow me to format properly.). Sharing is caring, but please properly credit and reference my work.

Although breast cancer is one of the most well-funded cancers in research, despite its relative lower societal burden, this cancer increased fourfold in the US population since 1970 (Samuelson; Schneider et al.). Breast cancer cause-related marketing (CRM), an agreement between a company and a non-profit organization where the former agrees to donate money to the latter based on consumer purchases of the company’s products, is largely responsible for successful fundraising efforts (Carlson and Le 169). However, the commercialization of breast cancer discourse ultimately harms women by encouraging unethical practices by the industrial cancer complex (ICC), suppressing discourse about the links between toxic chemicals and breast cancer, and appropriating feminist breast cancer narratives.

The ICC, a network of private corporations, universities, non-profit organizations, and government agencies, uses CRM to engage in unethical practices (Segal 8). Organizations use CRM with the goal of enhancing their image as socially responsible actors and boosting profits (AbiGhannam et al. 466; Carlson and Le 169).  The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s (Komen) CRM fundraising initiatives raise ethical concerns. Komen encourages its partners to disclose donation information, but its partnership with Dansko misled customers to believe that each pink clog purchase benefited the cause when the company only agreed to pay a lump sum donation (Carlson and Le 171; Fernández-Morales and Menéndez-Menéndez 7). Business Insider revealed that the NFL donated eight percent of its pink merchandise sales to the American Cancer Society (ACS), falling short of its one-hundred-percent promise. Yoplait’s campaign allowed the company to keep the nearly five million dollars they collected for breast cancer (Carlson and Le 173). Hypocritically, although most of Avon’s products contain chemicals linked to cancer, it launched its “Kiss Goodbye to Breast Cancer” campaign (Carlson and Le 174). Because the pink ribbon and the colour pink are not trademarked, the ICC misappropriates them (Carlson and Le 170). Such problematic practices lead critics to use the term “pinkwashing” to describe corporate efforts to increase profits by exploiting breast cancer and question the legitimacy of CRM (Carlson and Le 169).

A content analysis of CRM magazine advertisements reveals the absence of educational information concerning breast cancer causes and prevention when CRM should involve raising awareness (AbiGhannam et al. 461-62, 461). Instead of focusing on prevention, the discourse surrounding breast cancer promotes costly BRCAnalysis© (a genetic test revealing mutations linked to breast cancer) and mammograms (Pelluzzo 352). Meanwhile, tens of thousands of women suffer from over-diagnosis and overtreatment from the overemphasis on mammograms in campaign messaging (Carter; Ehrenreich 52; Jørgensen et al.). Large-scale studies show that routine mammograms minimally impact breast cancer mortality, and there are “two to four false positives for every cancer detected” (Ehrenreich 51). Equally important as detection and treatment are causes and prevention, but given that the ICC is a multi-billion-dollar industry, it is unsurprising that it rarely mentions the latter (Carter; Fernández-Morales and Menéndez-Menéndez 6, 9, 16; Pelluzzo 358; Segal 14). Since genetics only account for up to ten percent of breast cancer cases (Spencer), CRM should focus on what can be controlled, such as environmental causes and risk factors, including reproductive history, age, and alcohol consumption (Schneider et al.). However, CRM campaigns commercialize breast cancer, promote expensive but fallible detection methods, and fail to endorse prevention by avoiding environmental causes.

Commercialized breast cancer discourse conceals links between cancer and toxic chemicals. Journalists Wendy Mesley and Miranda C. Spencer ask why the media avoids coverage of carcinogens and hormone-disrupting chemicals linked to breast cancer found in plastics, pesticides, personal care products (including fragrance and cosmetics), industrial by-products, and consumer-product additives (Segal 15; Spencer). Investigations by the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Canada’s Environmental Commissioner (CEC), and Environmental Defence confirm the presence of cancer-causing chemicals, such as parabens, phthalates, and phenols, in personal care and cleaning products (“Full Disclosure” 8, 11; “Right to Know” 1; Taylor et al. 1). The chemicals in synthetic fragrance are similar to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the volatile organic compounds resulting from burning cigarettes and fossil fuels, in toxicity (Patel 106-7, 110; “Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons”). Yet, almost none of the largest media outlets mentioned the biggest scientific peer-reviewed meta-studies, the “State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment” and “Environmental Pollutants and Breast Cancer: Epidemiological Studies,” which identified hundreds of chemicals that cause breast cancer. The reports show that fetus and childhood exposure to chemicals, such as DDT pesticides and toxic chemicals found inside homes, elevate risk for breast cancer (Spencer). The Toxic Links Coalition (TLC) highlight that women under forty years old living in the San Francisco Bay Area, the site of Pacific Gas and Electric and Chevron’s polluting power plant and oil refinery, have the highest rate of breast cancer in a Western country(Pelluzzo 353-54). In a plastics automotive factory in Windsor, Ontario, workers witnessed numerous coworkers contract various cancers, unaware that plastics contain cancer-causing chemicals because they were never provided with health and safety training or personal protective equipment (Tiefer). Yet, only five percent of newspapers, twelve percent of science magazines, and ten percent of women’s magazines mentioned environmental causation over forty years (Spencer). Similarly, breast cancer discussion groups discourage dialogue about environmental carcinogens (Segal 8). Clearly, biased discourse about breast cancer actively excludes environmental causation.

The reason for this exclusion relates to issues of regulation and money. In both Canada and the US, “a chemical is innocent until proven guilty” (Spencer), and manufacturers are not legally required to disclose all chemical ingredients (Taylor et al. 7). The household product and fragrance industries are essentially self-regulatory (“Full Disclosure” 4; “Right to Know” 1). In 2016, CEC criticized Health Canada’s “inadequate and lax regulatory enforcement” of safety testing of personal care products (“Full Disclosure” 8, 11). The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deems parabens as safe because it does not acknowledge women as heavy users of personal care and cleaning products; it ignores the presence of parabens in paraben-free products, and its indifference towards infants having three times higher levels of parabens than adult women is troubling (Matwiejczuk et al. 177, 182, 186). The FDA does not consider that low doses of Bisphenol A (BPA) leeching from containers into the product contributes to breast cancer, and Bisphenol F and S (found in BPA-free products) are not safer alternatives to BPA (Taylor et al. 7; Wang et al.). Breast cancer activists want increased funding devoted to environmental causes and strengthening of consumer protection laws, which challenge corporate power (Spencer). The nearly ninety-two-billion-dollar global fragrance market and AstraZeneca’s five-hundred-million-dollar cancer drug market along with detection and treatment amounting to nearly one hundred and sixty billion dollars in the US alone attest to that corporate power (Pelluzzo 353; “Right to Know” 2; Taylor and Knibb 186). The ACS allocates under 0.1 percent of its seven-hundred-million-dollar annual budget to environmental and occupational causation; instead, it annually pampers thirty thousand women undergoing cancer treatment with gifts donated by the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (Ehrenreich 49, 53). The Toxic Links Coalition argues that the ICC profits by producing many of the toxins linked to breast cancer and then sells the drugs to treat the disease (Pelluzzo 353). Evidently, the ICC cannot afford strong regulations in the chemical industry as its financial interests depend on keeping the environmental causes of breast cancer from entering public discourse.

 Finally, the commercialization of breast cancer narratives is anti-feminist. In her 1993 “Beauty Out of Damage” photographs depicting her breast cancer journey, Matuschka creates an activist discourse “focused on consciousness-raising, collective education, and denunciation of inequality” reflective of the emancipatory practice of the Women’s Health Movement (WHM); she controls the camera to challenge depoliticized and harmful representations of breast cancer (Fernández-Morales and Menéndez-Menéndez 2, 4-5).  However, the emerging survivor-based narrative obscured Matuschka’s work. Rejecting survivorship, she identifies as a victim of the ICC who thrives, thanks to the sisterhood’s political fight. The ICC appropriates female empowerment based on a millennial post-feminist narrative that focuses on a woman’s individual right to “choose how to modify her behaviour within the lines prescribed by the medical authorities” inside a capitalist structure that commodifies health, creating what Matuschka calls the “Shop and Stop Breast Cancer Approach” (AbiGhannam et al. 463; Fernández-Morales and Menéndez-Menéndez 7, 8-9, 15). As such, the survivor was branded as a smiling apolitical “she-ro.” Isolating her cancer experience as individual and transformative, Lynn Kholman endorses “compulsory optimism,” yoga, meditation, and spinning, attributing her breast cancer to matters of discipline and lifestyle choices (Fernández-Morales and Menéndez-Menéndez 2, 7-9, 16-17). Cancer is “a disease of populations,” but people are “persuaded of the individuality of breast cancer” (Segal 8). Kholman’s “be like me” personal stories reflect the anti-feminist framing of breast cancer discourse curated by the ICC and supresses other narratives, maintaining ignorance about breast cancer (Segal 4).

The breast cancer narrative promotes “patriarchal medicine” where obedience and suspension of critical thought is the message behind the pink universe (Ehrenreich 52). Ehrenreich describes how her posts about environmental carcinogens, “sappy pink ribbons,” and debilitating treatments in a Komen message board was met with “a chorus of rebukes” (50). She portrays a cute, pink world “replete with infantilizing tropes” brimming with consumer products (Segal 13). Perceived as a female colour, pink is soothing, joyful, and unthreatening, and marketers depict survivors as young, happy, and glamorous (Taylor and Knibb 188, 198). These stories suggest that illness and disability are shameful, creating a “new normal” expanded to include bald and breastless women who can still run and shop (Segal 9).The empowering tone “makes women with the advanced disease into losers who just didn’t try hard enough” (Tiefer). Because of its repetitious and prescriptive nature, the personal narrative regulates what kind of stories are permissible to tell by promoting a “hierarchy of values…humour is good; despair is bad, surviving is noble” and establishes itself as a protected realm, immune from criticism (Segal 6, 14, 17).  The typical story sells products with messages like “makeup can add life to your face,” making “the reciprocity of marketing and philanthropy…part of a subplot of the standard cancer story” (Segal 11). By removing the personal is political from breast cancer discourse, the ICC ensures its monopoly over the narrative. Without the WHM, women would still be subjected to disabling high-dose chemotherapy and the Halsted radical mastectomy (Ehrenreich 47). Truly, as Matuschka argues, “Nothing will ever happen to breast cancer unless it is politicized” (Fernández-Morales and Menéndez-Menéndez 13). Ultimately, commercialized breast cancer stories co-opted by the ICC demand submission instead of critical analysis and negate the collective and political experience of breast cancer.

In conclusion, the ICC harms women by engaging in deceitful practices, suppressing science-based links between breast cancer and environmental causation, and appropriating female empowerment by using CRM to commercialize the discourse about the disease to maximize profits. In its pink universe, the ICC’s carefully-constructed narratives about breast cancer trivialize the disease by reducing women to feel-good shopaholics, conveniently diverting women’s attention away from causes and prevention. In this way, the dominant discourse manufactures ignorance about breast cancer. Breast cancer is not an individual responsibility. Confronting cancer demands women to look to the WHM and stand in solidarity to insist on transparency and accountability from an industry that thrives on keeping women ill.

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