The pink ribbon is the darling of corporate America. It represents all that is good about our country—optimism, scientific progress, boobs, generosity, and our ability to rise to any challenge. During last month’s pink perennial celebration of she-roism, many of us pledged emotional allegiance to fight in the war against breast cancer rather than the battle for patient empowerment and scientific understanding. And now we can’t rally past our massive spending hangover from our good-natured effort to “find a cure.”
To close the distance between a colossal idea like the war on breast cancer and potential recruits, pink ribbons are slapped on products to create proximity to the idea. It focuses attention to the imaginary realm in which everyone envisions the ultimate end in mind: a future without breast cancer. Join the Fight. Get Your Mammogram. Shop for the Cure. Fighting the good fight takes precedence over winning the war.
There is nothing pretty in pink about this tyranny of cheerfulness. Softening what is not a soft cuddly disease only creates resentment from those battling the disease on the frontlines. We used to march in the streets for social change, now we pay to run; we pay to gas up our cars, we pay to do something besides worry—walk, shop, or swim for the cure.
The reality of breast cancer is difficult to grasp: unknown causes, increasing prevalence, medical uncertainty, and many casualties. And the personal reality (lost somewhere between pinking the NFL and handguns) is surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy—better known as slash, burn, and poison. In this culture, the personal is no longer political, but it sure has painted the public pink.
As I nurse my pink hangover this month, I ask myself several questions. Like what role (if any) should corporations play in disseminating medical information, encouraging particular modes of treatment, or fundraising for large breast cancer organizations? How do everyday messages about women and breast cancer survivorship help or diminish support for the diagnosed, or for those who are at risk? Whose voices are missing from the public debate? Where is the debate headed, and will it have any impact on the eradication of the disease?