Is Susan G. Komen About More Than the Cure?

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You’ve probably noticed at the grocery store that nearly every aisle has some product with a pink ribbon on it, telling you that part of your purchase will go to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation (SGK). I mean, everything from soup to cereal to band-aids (probably) has had, at one time or another, a proud pink ribbon on display. Though I admire the marketing strategy to get the word out – and SGK certainly has – I have to wonder what this does for other organizations who are trying to raise money for life saving treatment. My cynicism flares up when seeing football players wear pink to support breast cancer awareness but a significant number of them have been accused of assaulting their intimate partners, sexually and/or physically. Don’t pretend to care about the health of women when behind closed doors – or often not even – you act like you have ownership over their bodies.

It’s worth looking into SGK and how it got to where it is. The organization’s website states: “At Susan G. Komen, our mission is pretty simple: to save lives and end breast cancer forever. How we do it…well, that’s a bit more complex. We educate, support research, offer grants that provide financial and emotional assistance and advocate for better breast cancer policy. But in a broader sense, we empower others, ensure quality care for all, and invest in science to find the cures.”

Beyond the words of hope, there is every kind of merchandise one might imagine, including my personal favorite: the little people decals for your car to describe your super adorable, happy family – all wearing pink, pink, PINK.

In 2012, SGK publicly announced that they would cut funding to Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood utilized the money from SGK to provide healthcare to women of low socioeconomic status; in many cases, Planned Parenthood is the only healthcare individuals are able to access. SGK stated that it had new internal regulations asserting that it could not provide money to organizations under investigation. It seems clear that in actuality, this was a way to bend to a pro-life, conservative agenda without naming it as such. The backlash couldn’t have gone better for pro-choice folks out there – not only did SGK reverse its decision within a few days, but donations to SGK dropped while donations to Planned Parenthood soared. As Amy Schiller wrote for The Nation in 2012, the controversy between SGK and Planned Parenthood “provided a long-overdue spotlight on the difference between feminism as a brand and feminism as a political movement.”

In her statement of apology, SGK CEO Nancy Brinker said, “We do not want our mission marred or affected by politics—anyone’s politics.” Therein lies the problem. She is suggesting that women’s bodies, women’s rights are in some capacity NOT political. Again, Amy Schiller writes: “Women’s bodies are the most politicized sites on earth. When women focus on a hyperfeminine aesthetic at the expense of issues of substance, we end up with a hot pink ghetto of goodwill that forfeits the conversation about rights, access and money to the menfolk.” Linda Hirschman describes this view as “choice feminism” – essentially an approach to feminism that attempts to take away politics to affirm all women’s choices without question or critique. It’s Pollyanna feminism. Feminism that’s all sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns – as in, it doesn’t truly exist. Barbara Ehrenreich echoes this sentiment, suggesting that issues such as rape, domestic violence, and unwanted pregnancy seem too edgy which makes supporting breast cancer awareness easier. It’s feminism with pink vomit all over it.

In Pink Ribbon BluesGayle Sulik writes “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.”

Beyond the tendency of SGK to slap a happy face on women and contend that nothing they do is political, the organization also is guilty of “pinkwashing”. The term “pinkwashing” means the act of an organization claiming to care about breast cancer by promoting a product with a pink ribbon, ignoring the fact that the same organization sells and/or produces products that are linked to the disease.

The more time spent researching products with pink ribbons, the more questions have arisen. Despite links between excessive alcohol use and cancer, there have been bar crawls to raise money for SGK and at one point Mike’s Hard Lemonade donned pink. SGK has promoted fast-food chain KFC with “Buckets for the Cure” despite obesity and a high-fat diet being risk factors for the disease. My favorite, though, is the partnership between one of the largest fossil fuel service firms and SGK even though there are possible links between fracking and cancer. The firm Baker Hughes stated that they would paint (pink, of course) and distribute a total of 1,000 drill bits. They did this last year, too. No, that really happened.

Beyond the excessive marketing of questionable products, SGK participates in ruthless trolling to rid the world of any organization that has “cure” in their name. Laura Bassett of the Huffington Post wrote in 2010: “Komen has identified and filed legal trademark oppositions against more than a hundred of these Mom and Pop charities, including Kites for a Cure, Par for The Cure, Surfing for a Cure and Cupcakes for a Cure–and many of the organizations are too small and underfunded to hold their ground.” It makes me wonder: how much could an organization care about women when they promote products that are risk factors for the disease they are trying to eradicate? And how much could it care about women when they are obliterating other organizations claiming the same? How threatening could an organization called “Cupcakes for a Cure” actually be to a mega group like SGK? Among all the smiles, pink, and proclamation of sisterhood, SGK is ruthlessly crushing organizations seeking to help people with other diseases. That’s not the kind of sisterhood they promote on their pamphlets.

So-called “pinkwashing” doesn’t end with company endorsements. Several women have spoken out about the fact that SGK essentially ignores women with metastatic breast cancer – also known as stage 4 – in favor of the types of breast cancer that are more hopeful, meaning curable. From a blog post entitled “Pinktober from a Metastatic Point of View” Ann Silberman writes: “We don’t fit in with our ‘pink sisters.’ Our concerns are very different, yet we are expected to be just like them, after all, it’s breast cancer. Alone, we are left to deal with real issues of life and death.” Lisa Bonchek Adams writes in a different blog about her disillusionment with SGK, stating “I think they need to focus less on a ‘cure’ and more on acknowledging and helping women deal with cancer after their initial treatment and/or those women like me who have metastatic breast cancer. Survivors, and there are more and more of them, have long term physical needs, psychological concerns, and medical issues that are unique.”

It’s certainly not just one thing here that is questionable. It is a whole host of things. I’d like to think that SGK started out with the best of intentions – Susan G. Komen died of metastatic breast cancer and her sister promised that she would fight to find a cure – but it has morphed into something unfamiliar and damaging. Individuals with certain types of breast cancer are being ignored and shiny happy things are being highlighted to the detriment of the very real struggle of individuals with the disease. Products that can increase risk factors of getting cancer are being touted and, in the end, SGK is making boatloads of money.

No one can argue that the eradication of cancer is not worthy of our support. But I’d rather have my money go to research than to lawyers tasked with going after small nonprofits simply trying to make a difference. There is room at the table for any person or people raising awareness about a disease, and I hope that SGK blatant dismissal of this will be its downfall.

If you’d like to donate to an organization that researches breast cancer, METAvivor gives 100% of donations to research grants. It is also run entirely by volunteers and creates a rare space for women and men with metastatic breast cancer. Check out the incredible work they do by clicking here.