By Sabrina McCormick, PhD
In a few days, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) will be over. Thank goodness.
I suppose I shouldn’t say that, but the endless reams of pink products get on my nerves. This might seem insensitive and even cruel. It’s not. In fact, it stems from a respect for the struggle that women have against a horrid disease, and the history of the Month that in no way gives those women the respect due to them.
My annoyance starts with my distaste for the marking of women who have breast cancer with girlish femininities. That is hardly where it ends. Rather, every time I see a pink teddy bear or banner about a fundraising walk, I remember who owns the month and therefore who is telling the world, yes, I mean the world, what to think about breast cancer.
Most people don’t realize that one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies owns NBCAM. In 1984, the Executive Directors of Imperial Chemical Incorporated, Cancer Care, Inc., and the American Association of Cancer Care Physicians met to discuss the growing breast cancer crisis, and how to educate Americans about detection and treatment. More and more women seemed to be succumbing to the disease, but few were using mammography, the only medical test for detection. In addition, the Company had taken a turn for the worse in the late 1970s thanks to over-investment in petrochemicals, plastics and agricultural goods. It reported that even after reorganizing and streamlining, it had to “make greater levels of profitability and market penetration, and change its product profile (Pettigrew 1985).” Pharmaceuticals were the next venture, and it would need a consumer base. That is when the first National Breast Cancer Awareness Week was founded.
Over the years, Imperial Chemicals became AstraZeneca, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, and the owner of the NBCAM logo. Over those same years, the Month grew in popularity and consumption of pharmaceuticals grew. Today, Astra is a multi-billion dollar venture.
Here is my biggest problem with this scenario: women are still dying en masse. 40,170 women died in 2009, to be exact. Mortality is decreasing, but at what cost? 254,650 women got breast cancer last year. My film and book, No Family History, show the tremendous pain and suffering in the lives of women and their families even when women survive.
We need to take a new approach to this disease.
And so, I propose an alternative: National Breast Cancer Prevention Month. We are aware of breast cancer. Now, let’s prevent it. The idea is simple. During this month, we stop exposing ourselves to chemicals, toxins, and unhealthy living that leads down the road to cancer. During this month, we start to change what we consume, and so indicate to the companies making these chemicals that we will not support them. We spend this month telling our legislators we will not vote for them unless they protect us from these chemicals.
Let’s keep our daughters safe. Let’s stop breast cancer before it starts. Let’s stop buying pink and start thinking green.
Sabrina McCormick is a Science and Technology Policy Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences working in the Environmental Protection Agency, and she is also research faculty at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, and the author of No Family History: The Environmental Links to Breast Cancer.