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Diseases shouldn’t be popularity contests

By in Opinions

NATALIE DAVIS

Cancer

We all like to think we are doing our part in the fight against disease through donating to causes in one way or another, but what does this mean for finding a cure?

Media has done a large part to contribute to research funding and raise public awareness for diseases such as breast cancer, Alzheimer’s and AIDS. This research has vastly improved detection and survival rates for those diagnosed — as well as patient care during treatment.

Unfortunately, diseases that do not benefit from mass media support do not receive the same positive results. In some instances, the enormous wave of pink support for breast cancer drowns out attempts to bring awareness to other diseases.

In a culture of quick trends it’s easy to pin a little pink ribbon on your collar and go about your day, feeling a little glow in your heart as if you’ve done something good for the world by donning your cool new accessory.

Sound familiar? As harmless as this mindset is, it doesn’t really help anyone if it’s done ignorantly. So let’s take a look at the numbers and, in the words of thinkbeforeyoupink.org, “Think before we pink!”

Breast cancer propaganda has become something of a pop culture sensation. One can completely deck themselves out in pink breast cancer gear rivalling the garb of any die-hard Roughrider fan. Mass media noticed the market, and the direness of the disease seems to have been shelved by a ‘pink-washed’ population — a term that refers to the frenzied sale of pink goods by companies focused on profit rather than donations.

Where does the money put towards these disease fighting campaigns actually go? Regrettably, much of the pink themed merchandise doesn’t contribute to research nearly as much as it turns a profit for the company hosting it.

For example, an analysis conducted by businessinsider.com on the popular NFL pink campaign shows that it has generated a whopping $9 billion for the league in 2012 alone. But according to thinkbeforeyoupink.org, the league has donated only $4. 5 million in total since the pink campaign was first introduced in 2009.

Even more disturbing, the league has taken a pink preference attitude and firmly excludes other diseases from awareness promotion. When wide receiver for the Chicago Bears, Brandon Marshall, tried to bring attention to Mental Health Awareness week during a game on Oct. 10 by wearing green shoes, the NFL reacted by fining him $5, 000 for violating uniform protocol. Marshall paid the fine and matched it with a contribution to charity according to Anna Bisaro from Medill Sports.

Interestingly, the first instance of the colour pink being linked to breast cancer occurred in New York City in 1991, when runners in the Komen Race For The Cure received pink ribbons for their participation.

Susan Komen was a small town woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1976 and lost her battle with the disease in 1982. When Komen was diagnosed, the disease was not well-known or researched and her family could do little to help. The idea for the pink ribbon was introduced by Komen’s sister, Nancy Brinker, who promised to her sister that she would “do whatever she could to end breast cancer forever.”

Since then, awareness for breast cancer has improved greatly and survival rates have also increased in every age group since the mid 90’s. 5-year survival rates are up to 80 per cent for men and 88 per cent for women according to bcsc.ca. This is fantastic for men and women suffering from breast cancer.

That said, some of the pink breast cancer products not only produce more profit for the companies behind the label, but are actually carcinogenic.

Chevrolet donated $10 for each test drive to the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, but neglected to broadcast the fact that each test drive polluted the air with chemicals known to cause breast cancer.

Furthermore, “women who work in the auto factories are exposed to a range of harmful chemicals, such as benzene, which is used to manufacture rubber tires, chromium and nickel for welding and machining, and formaldehyde in the manufacturing of plastics and textiles, all of which contribute to breast cancer,” according to an article by Karuna Jaggar for thinkbeforeyoupink.org.

AIDS awareness has also been implemented by a red ribbon campaign. Unfortunately, rates of infection among Canadians have actually grown by 7,300 people since 2008, putting the number at 71,300 at the end of 2011 according to a census by catie.ca.

Even more grim, the number of women with cardiovascular disease has been higher than men since 1994 according to a TED Talks lecture by Noel Bairey Merz, director of the Women’s Heart Center at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute. The reason for this rise is that cardiovascular disease is traditionally thought of as a male disease, and therefore female patterns are not as well researched and harder to diagnose. Heart disease usually strikes very suddenly, whereas breast cancer mortality is down to 4 per cent according to the same lecture.

Our society needs to remember that breast cancer is not the only disease that needs attention and support. It‘s important to research before you donate to causes like breast cancer, as ‘pink-washing’ is increasingly prevalent and it often doesn’t help those suffering from diseases as much as you may think.


Graphic: Cody Schumacher/Graphics Editor

  • Luke

    Credibility aside, citing a website titled ‘thinkbeforeyoupink.org’ to support your argument is, to say the least, alarming. Secondly, it is simply incorrect to quote ‘rates of infection’ as increasing by 7300 people since 2008.’ Not only does this statistic not describe a rate, but it proves nothing in regards to the efficacy of the AIDS awareness campaign because it lacks meaningful baseline (before the Red Ribbon campaign was introduced) comparison. Similarly, you cannot meaningfully compare the rate of onset of myocardial infarction induced by heart disease to the mortality rate of breast cancer as these are entirely unrelated measures. Lastly, it seems that your argument against Chevrolet is stretched to fit your argument more so than it is actually valid. Chevrolet is going to sell automobiles and provide potential buyers with test drives regardless of whether or not they donate $10 to Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. Thus, since this company’s source of revenue is not going to change, the only change that you are suggesting they must reasonably make, is to remove their donation program. In this sense, your argument becomes to a greater extent against fundraising than against prevention of exposure to environmental carcinogens. While I agree that people need to research and hold charities accountable for where their donated dollars wind up, I believe you could have better argued this point using relevant, meaningful statistics, without sensationalizing your entire argument, and through the use of unbiased, credible sources.

    • Carter

      Ten dollars is a bullshit donation from a company the size of Chevrolet. It’s a marketing tool that will probably cost them a whole lot less than the usual marketing campaign and should be seen for what it is.

      I get your concerns over the sensationalism of the article, but you spent most of your reply telling us why the article is no good, which affects very few people, and a very small portion of your reply saying that you generally agree that charities aren’t doing what they should be, which affects an awful lot of people. I’m so tired of people focusing on discrediting the messenger, and then forgetting about the actual problem in the mean time. Your reply was well thought out, and you’re not wrong, but you are missing the forest for the trees.

    • Luke

      I agree, it is entirely a marketing tool used by Chevrolet and the ten dollars is a meaningless lure to have customers drawn towards testing out their vehicles. That being said, I do focus in my previous comment on why this article is ineffective in delivering it’s message. There is a larger, more important message that needs to be communicated, but since I lack both the correct type of education and outreach in who I can communicate to I feel all I can do is hold the actual ‘messengers’ accountable for expressing these important ideas in a persuasive, soundly supported and meaningful way. Whereas I am unlikely to draw the readership required through a comment to convey any meaningful message about the ‘forest,’ I can at the least constructively criticize the author who has a larger scope of influence so as to potentially make their next article more effectively delivered.

  • Rachel

    I agree with the thesis of this article, which is that it’s pretty despicable for corporate entities to profit off of human suffering, under the guise of charity. However, I think the author has also missed an important nuance: mainstream campaigns like Pink Ribbon and Red Ribbon have reduced the popular stigma associated with those diseases. Twenty or thirty years ago, people were ashamed to admit that they had breast cancer. Now that stigma is almost completely gone. HIV/AIDs is still highly stigmatized, but I would argue that the Red Ribbon campaign has helped to make it less so. As the author rightly mentions, awareness of breast cancer has greatly increased since the Pink Ribbon campaign began. Would that have happened without all the media and corporate pinkwashing that the author laments? Maybe. Is all that “wasted” corporate money worth the price of “raising awareness”? I don’t know. This is a complicated issue.

    My cousin was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. My whole family took part in the CIBC run for the cure. I gladly wore a pink ribbon, even though I know about the negative aspects of the charity. I’m sure that CIBC probably benefits from associating itself with breast cancer, but frankly I don’t really care. The run gave us the chance to come together as a family and a community to support our loved ones. Without corporate sponsorship, it might not have happened. Or maybe it would have. Again, this is a complicated issue. I agree that many other diseases also need attention and support…but where is that support going to come from?

  • LisaP

    I think this article is quite immature in its thinking and research. Much of it doesn’t make sense and it is rather ironic when criticizing the media for its popularity that she uses such mainstream “fluffy” media like tedtalk and thinkbeforeyoupink sites to back her claim. One must remember that when it comes to women’s health issue they have always been taken to the back burner and breast cancer research for decades was almost nonexistent. It is also naive for the other to believe we don’t realize there are other diseases out there and that we think that 100% of our donations go to the research.

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