Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Reductio ad absurdum

Would you like to buy a cancer-causing carcinogen to support cancer care? – © 2013 Dee/Naughtyword
When a friend of mine posted the above picture on Instagram, I thought little of it. Her comment said it all: "Fuck off with the pink ribbon bullshit already". Pink fuel for breast cancer? What's next, firearms for cancer? Oh, wait. That's already been done. Watch breast-related pornographic videos for cancer? Oh. This is getting awkward. It seems whatever I type on this screen, there has already been some breast cancer promotion around it. 

Fatty fast foods that may greatly increase the risk of all cancers...for cancer.

Cosmetics laced with potentially cancer-causing carcinogens...for cancer.

Vodka for cancer. The World Health Organisation considers alcohol to be a Class 1 carcinogen "known to cause cancer", in the same category as asbestos as tobacco.

Vibrators for cancer. 

But on said friend's Facebook feed, her Instagram image cause quite a stir with comments from the confused and bemused, to the "every cent counts" type. Surely any money for the cause is good, right?


Cutthroat multinationals striving to be good corporate citizens have been trading on a popular misconception for years: buy "pink" and support breast cancer. Case closed. Good money for a good cause and I get new lipstick/handbags/bottled water/sex toys out of it. Win–win, right? Not so fast.

The pink ribbon has a fraught history. Long before breast cancer was the most popular cause since "Do They Know It's Christmas", 68-year-old grandmother Charlotte Haley hand-made peach-coloured loops to bring awareness to cancer prevention. Key word: PREVENTION. Then cosmetics giant Estée Lauder and Self magazine approached Haley to use the ribbon in a breast cancer awareness campaign. Haley said no, as she didn't want her grass-roots campaign to be commercialised, so the multinationals appropriated the ribbon idea, changed its colour to pink and the rest is history.

Since then, the colour pink and its ubiquitous ribbons have become irrevocably associated with the breast cancer cause. Over the course of two decades, breast cancer has been transformed from a deadly disease into a multi-billion dollar industry supported by an almost endless stream of commercial products and campaigns. 

Good money donated for a good cause is, of course, good. I would never try and argue it is not. Like other illness awareness campaigns, the various breast cancer campaigns have had a very real and positive impact on the lives of its sufferers and their families. This is not in dispute. What should be in dispute is the gross simplification of a staggeringly complex disease: X for a Cure

The basic premise for most breast cancer campaigns, either explicit or implied, is one of "buy this product for a cure". That product may be a ribbon, a bottle of vodka, or a shotgun, but the principle's the same. While some of the money raised by these corporations is donated to charities, much of what the consumer is buying is an inflated sense of self-satisfaction.

Mount Franklin water, for example, donated a "pre-committed" $250,000 to the National Breast Cancer Foundation in 2007. Yes, pre-committed. Regardless of how much bottled water was bought, no matter how many messages of life experience were posted to their "Well of Positivity", that money would have found its way from Mount Franklin (or more likely its parent company, Coca-Cola Amatil) to the NBCF. In 2010, Mount Franklin committed $750,000 to the McGrath Foundation. A noble cause, no doubt. But this money would have been donated regardless of how many "hot pink"-lidded waters one bought. Maybe I'm crazy, but I would have thought that the more pink bottled waters were sold, the more money would be donated. Whoops. Silly me.

So what about BP, the pink pump that was the catalyst for this whole discussion? According to their website, under the banner of "Every Drop Counts", BP have committed to a minimum donation of $300,000 from May 2013. Good, no cap. But here's the cracker: 
You can help take the amount even higher by just filling up at a BP Pink Pump (Premium Unleaded 95). The more you get involved, the more cash will go towards making the lives of women with breast cancer just a little bit easier. 
Awesome, so BP will donate the money OR the proceeds of half-a-cent per litre of petrol sold, but only if you purchase Unleaded 95. The cynic in me might ask the question "but why don't you put the pink pump on the normal unleaded so that the McGrath Foundation gets even more money?" Then it dawns on me. This is BP. BP is a global corporation whose responsibility it is to make money. A company whose bread and butter is selling a product that poisons the air and has left a trail of destruction over decades of use and abuse. Remember there was something to do with the Gulf of Mexico a couple of years back? Kevin Costner? Something? Oh, I can't remember. It was too long ago.

Benzine, in petrol fumes, is just one of the many environmental factors that are known to increase the risk of cancers generally and breast cancer in particular. What's next, Heineken sponsoring Alcoholics' Anonymous? To BP's credit, this is a fairly open promotion, but I can't quite reconcile the idea of buying a cancer-causing carcinogen to support a cancer charity. It's like having sex to promote virginity. 

People will say that having BP donate something is better than nothing. I guess it is. But these organisations are motivated purely by self-interest. They're not doing good for its own sake, but they're doing it to be seen to be doing something good. 

Damn it, man, I'm a writer, not a doctor, so I'll defer to the smartest guys in the room when it comes to the focus of cancer funding. But to quote the report of the US Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee (phew): 
Prevention is the key to reducing the burden of breast cancer.Science must seek greater understanding of the environmental and genetic factors that influence risk, susceptibility, and the progression of the disease. Enhanced investment in prevention research — from the initial concept of studies, built on strong partnerships between breast cancer advocates and scientists, to the timely dissemination and translation of research findings — will ultimately reduce the incidence of breast cancer in future generations.
From this eminent group of clever people comes the crazy notion that prevention may actually be more important than a cure. Significantly, prevention is a far more realistic goal than a cure. This is where organisations such as the McGrath Foundation get it right. They are focussed on funding nurses to provide care, rather than the quixotic cure. Implicit in the foundation's focus is the realisation that people with cancer die. This is important because it seems throughout the pink haze of bottled water and vodka is the idea that somehow death can be averted by mere positive thinking. Death seems to not be part of the feel-good charities' narrative. The evils of breast cancer can be eliminated through Mount Franklin's "Well of Positivity". They can't. People get cancer; people die. The world needs another cure-finding cancer charity like Australia needs a political party run by Clive Palmer. Funding for prevention and treatment should be a far greater focus than eating fried food for a cure. Unfortunately, a "Walk for the study into the environmental causes of breast cancer" isn't as marketable as "Walk for a Cure".

While you may feel good running in your fun-run or purchasing your pink-branded Class 1 cancer-causing carcinogen, you are achieving little more than self-satisfaction. If you want to donate to a bona-fide foundation, then by all means, donate, but skip the pink petrol, pass on the cosmetics for a cure and ignore the sex toys for the cause. They are nothing more than an attempt to make you buy shit with the belief that at some point, at some indeterminate point in the future, some organisation related to cancer may receive some funds from the product's manufacturer. 

Check websites, contact the charities, do your due diligence before donating to organisations. Make sure their goals align with yours and that they actually act on their commitments. If purchasing a "pink" product, read the fine print. See where the asterisks lead to. Visit the manufacturers' websites. Think. Ask.

Long before breast cancer was the popular cause it is now, Charlotte Haley hand-made a ribbon to promote funding for prevention, not a cure. Perhaps it's time we refocussed our efforts on something more realistic and achievable.

Post script:

If you've not seen Pink Ribbons, Inc., a documentary on the Pink Ribbon phenomenon, then it is a highly recommended watch that covers the above in far greater detail than a single person with an intermittent internet connection ever could. 

Another great source of information on "pinkwash" is Think Before You Pink, a website established by the watchdog of the breast cancer movement, Breast Cancer Action.


  1. Great article, as always.

  2. Thank you Richard, much more articulate than my head-desk response.