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My children’s favorite picture from a trip I took to Iraq was a garbage truck decked out with garlands of flowers—I was told this remarkable decoration was occasion by Ramadan. But here in America we have pink garbage trucks—trucks decorated for the purpose of promoting breast cancer awareness.

I learned this from Peggy Orenstein’s provocative article in last week’s New York Times Magazine about breast-cancer philanthropy. Orenstein quotes Todd Tuttle, University of Minnesota surgeon:

There is so much "awareness" about breast cancer in the U.S. I’ve called it breast-cancer overawareness. It’s everywhere. There are pink garbage trucks.

Not only pink garbage trucks—pink ribbons, of course, and pink dresses, pink boots, pink paraphernalia that is associated with the “race for the cure” of breast cancer.

What’s wrong with a pink garbage truck to raise awareness? Nothing, in the view of some. Orenstein quotes Lynn Erdman, a vice president at Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the foundation that has promoted everything pink:

Nearly 40,000 women and 400 men die every year of breast cancer. . . . Until that number dissipates, we don’t think there’s enough pink.

But what does all that pink accomplish? Orenstein persuasively argues that it leads to a hyper-awareness of breast cancer risks, accompanied by the anxiety of “breast cancer scares” for many women whose mammograms detect something abnormal and over-treatment for some early cancers. Dr. Tuttle says that all this pink has “petrified” women into a hypervigilance about breast cancer risks.

All that expenditure on pink paint for garbage trucks, pink ribbons, and pink everything takes away from money that can be spent on research, as Orenstein notes:

Despite the fact that Komen trademarked the phrase “for the cure,” only 16 percent of the $472 million raised in 2011…went toward research.

Moreover, as Orenstein points toward by the title of article (“Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer”), there’s a moral consequence to the devotion to pink: buying something branded with breast-cancer pink can make one feel like one has been philanthropic while in truth what one has bought a feel-good moment that doesn’t turly address the challenges of detecting and treating breast cancer

Mara Einstein focused on exactly this moral component of philanthropy through purchasing a philanthropy-branded item—and the case of Susan G. Komen for the Cure—in her 2012 book Compassion, Inc.: How Corporate America Blurs the Line between What We Buy, Who We Are, and Those We Help. Einstein details the corruption of turning philanthropy into conspicuous consumption.

The “pinkwashing” and feel-good character of the public discussion of breast cancer Orenstein describes also has the deflecting attention from those women (and few men) who will not be breast-cancer survivors but will die of the disease—the ones who will most need compassion and care.

Those at Susan G. Komen for the Cure are no doubt sincere in believing that their efforts make a difference—and surely they do make some difference. And, as someone whose mother had breast cancer at a fairly young age, I don’t want to knock those sincere efforts.

But I think that the pink paint would do better taken over to repaint and cheer the bedroom of a young girl whose mother is too ill to repaint it herself—and that we should resist “feel-good” philanthropy that doesn’t make a true difference to those who will or have been diagnosed with breast cancer. 



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