Sunday, April 28, 2013

"Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer"

We already knew that the NFL's annual month-long pink-out "Breast Cancer Awareness" event was a total scam, but now there's evidence that these campaigns could themselves be doing serious damage to our collective health.

This is the cover story in this morning's New York Times Magazine:

In it, contributing writer Peggy Orenstein tracks the rise of branded campaigns (like the NFL's), compares them with the early screening and treatment techniques the organizations advocate and comes to the conclusion that "all that well-meaning awareness has ultimately made women less conscious of the facts".

You should check out the entire piece, but here's a section particularly relevant to our discussion:
In "Pink Ribbon Blues," Gayle Sulik, a sociologist and founder of the Breast Cancer Consortium, credits Komen (as well as the American Cancer Society and National Breast Cancer Awareness Month) with raising the profile of the disease, encouraging women to speak about their experience and transforming "victims" into "survivors." Komen, she said, has also distributed more than $1 billion to research and support programs. At the same time, the function of pink-ribbon culture — and Komen in particular — has become less about eradication of breast cancer than self-perpetuation: maintaining the visibility of the disease and keeping the funds rolling in. "You have to look at the agenda for each program involved," Sulik said. "If the goal is eradication of breast cancer, how close are we to that? Not very close at all. If the agenda is awareness, what is it making us aware of? That breast cancer exists? That it's important? 'Awareness' has become narrowed until it just means 'visibility.' And that's where the movement has failed. That’s where it's lost its momentum to move further."

Before the pink ribbon, awareness as an end in itself was not the default goal for health-related causes. Now you’d be hard-pressed to find a major illness without a logo, a wearable ornament and a roster of consumer-product tie-ins. Heart disease has its red dress, testicular cancer its yellow bracelet. During "“Movember" — a portmanteau of "mustache" and "November" — men are urged to grow their facial hair to "spark conversation and raise awareness" of prostate cancer (another illness for which early detection has led to large-scale overtreatment) and testicular cancer. “These campaigns all have a similar superficiality in terms of the response they require from the public," said Samantha King, associate professor of kinesiology and health at Queen’s University in Ontario and author of "Pink Ribbons, Inc." "They're divorced from any critique of health care policy or the politics of funding biomedical research. They reinforce a single-issue competitive model of fund-raising. And they whitewash illness: we’re made 'aware' of a disease yet totally removed from the challenging and often devastating realities of its sufferers."
I started with mixed feelings about these league-wide branding events because they were ugly. Then I came to oppose them because they were a cynical attempt to mine wallets. Now I'm depressed because they might not even be accomplishing the relatively minor goals they proclaim.

Time for the NFL to get out of the whole business. Raise money, sure, for real research, but from top to bottom it's looking like this isn't the way.

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