By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
So…it’s October. The month of pumpkins, Halloween and the ever-present pink ribbon. Yes, in case you’ve been in a cave the past few weeks, it’s Breast Cancer Awareness month. It’s hard not to be aware since the pink ribbon is plastered on everything from lipstick to toilet paper. I can’t check out at the grocery store or purchase something online without being asked to donate to a breast cancer charity. I want to say at the outset that I am very much in support of breast cancer education and research. After all, one of my oldest and best friends has survived a particularly hellish form of the disease thanks to great doctors and innovations in drug therapy. And maybe that’s at the root of my problem with the “awareness” movement. Breast cancer now has a high survivability rate, even for cases that were once thought to be a death sentence. The American Cancer Society now estimates that the five-year survival rate for most breast cancer stages is close to 100%. That is tremendous progress and can certainly be attributed in part to the pink ribbon campaign of the past 25 years. But in my opinion, the pink ribbon has been pimped out.
First of all, pink ribbons on products signifies marketing at its best – or worst – luring customers into thinking that the company is donating proceeds to breast cancer research. In fact, according to the Breast Cancer Awareness organization and a report by the Huffington Post, some major products with pink ribbons on the packaging are there for marketing purposes only. In other words, they put the pink ribbon on their product to get the consumer to assume that some portion of the purchase goes toward breast cancer research. In reality it’s just there for marketing purposes. No additional funds go anywhere except the pocket of the corporation. In doing some research for this piece I was taken aback by some of the major product manufacturers that do this – everything from shoes to food. The height of irony to me is the sale of wine and liquor glasses with the pink ribbon when, in fact, alcohol consumption can contribute to getting breast cancer in the first place. Pink ribbon product placement where there is no actual financial contribution to the cause is not illegal as there is no trademark on the pink ribbon. Which means it can be used, and abused, at will. Certainly there are many companies that do donate their proceeds to breast cancer charities but my caution is that you research the donation details before you plunk down your hard-earned cash.
The other major irony that occurs this month is the NFL’s insistence on showing their “awareness” by players wearing pink shoes, wrist bands, socks and…wait for it…pink ribbons on their helmets. Hmmmmm….if I recall, October is also Domestic Violence awareness month. Seems to me that if the NFL wanted to do something favorable towards women this month they might have the players sport the purple Domestic Violence ribbons. Josh Brown has been the latest player to be charged with abuse but, regretfully, he is far from alone. Benjamin Morris of the FiveThirtyEight organization crunched federal data to measure the league’s domestic violence arrest rate against the general population of American men ages 25 to 29. He found that domestic violence accounted for a whopping 48 percent of arrests for violent crimes among the football players, compared to 21 percent among non-football players. Moreover, relative to the income level (top 1 percent) and poverty rate (0 percent) of NFL players, the domestic violence arrest rate is downright extraordinary. Roger Goodell’s commission, put together in 2014 after the Ray Rice incident, seems to have had little influence thus far – 2015 saw almost a doubling of the domestic violence arrests among NFL players. And if you think it’s because it’s being reported more, you need to read this Washington Post article from last week that describes the NFL’s “hush hush” policy regarding the abuse of women: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/10/17/for-battered-nfl-wives-a-message-from-the-cops-and-the-league-keep-quiet/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.5538aa51ef46.
But the greatest driver of my dislike of the pink ribbon is because it takes the air out of the room for other causes. After all, breast cancer is NOT the leading cause of death among women – that distinction goes to heart disease. There is minimal red ribbon activity in February but then it seems to fade into obscurity. Where is the awareness for lung and colorectal cancers, which both kill more women than breast cancer? And my personal complaint is the lack of funding for melanoma research. Five years ago I was diagnosed with melanoma. In my initial panic I searched the internet for local support and education. Surely a sunny state like Arizona with a high UV index should be replete with resources. Nope. Not a support group in sight. Not even a lousy walk. Five years later, I’m doing fine – I just look like a beekeeper every time I’m out in the sun. But a friend died of melanoma last year and another is fighting it. So I really hate “pink ribbon” month when I know so many more causes could use the research money. If nothing else the Melanoma Foundation needs the breast cancer marketing people – their ribbon color is black.