The Ribbon Epidemic

Over the weekend, Peggy Orenstein put breast cancer activism under the microscope:

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.”

Felix Salmon summarizes Orenstein’s article:

Americans are loving, compassionate people who really want to think that they can help, or make a difference. So they wear pink t-shirts, and ribbons, and football cleats; they spread the word in the name of “awareness”; they file up in their millions for mammograms and encourage everybody else to do so as well. (“If you haven’t had a mammogram, you need more than your breasts examined.”)

Orenstein does a good job of glossing the unpleasant consequences of such actions. Money which could be put to research into treating metastatic cancer — the kind of cancer which kills you — is instead put overwhelmingly into “awareness” campaigns and mammograms. There’s an epidemic of overtreatment, which carries massive physical, psychological, and economic costs. (And even attempting to measure such costs is considered almost treasonous in the cancer community.) More recently, the pink wave has spread to teenage girls, who are being educated, as Orenstein says, “to be aware of their breasts as precancerous organs”.

He goes on to draw larger lessons about charitable donations to various causes. The Dish has discussed the lameness of ribbons and tackled the commercialization of cancer before.