Film critiques breast cancer culture, but many say 'pink' raises awareness
In March 2009, Sherri Frank Weintrop got a mammogram, just like she knew she was supposed to, and was told everything looked good. Only a few months later, she found a lump in her breast and her doctor soon diagnosed her with stage I breast cancer.
While Weintrop’s diagnosis initially looked mild, her cancer developed into stage IIb breast cancer, leading her to ultimately undergo eight rounds of chemotherapy and more than 30 rounds of radiation.
Despite some rough side effects, the treatments did work. Weintrop, now in remission, said she feels fortunate to have had such a “positive experience” with the disease.
“I feel OK about this breast cancer thing. I’m a glass is half full and overflowing person,” she said. “I like giving my strength to others because I know it helps them.”
And there are plenty of others out there. Commonly listed among the most frequently diagnosed types of cancer in the United States, breast cancer seems to be everywhere. According to the American Cancer Society, 226,870 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2012 alone, and one in eight U.S. women will get breast cancer over the course of a lifetime.
Now there’s even a movie dedicated to the disease. The documentary “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival and opened at the Tivoli Theater earlier this month.
The film examines how some companies use pink-ribbon related marketing to increase sales while only donating small amounts to the cause, or in some cases, creating products found to be carcinogenic. Although the movie has been criticized for presenting a one-sided view and not digging deeply enough into a complex issue, it raises questions that many in the world of breast cancer consider important.
Beyond the Race
“What ‘Pink Ribbons, Inc.’ is showing is not anything we haven’t been dealing with for 30 years in the Komen organization and other organizations,” Helen Chesnut, executive director of Susan G. Komen for the Cure St. Louis Affiliate.
Chesnut, a breast cancer survivor herself, said one of the things she has learned through her involvement is the importance of knowing where the money is going.
“What people get stuck on from a Komen perspective is they think we’re just a race one day, which is very important to put the foundation down for the fundraising, but it’s what we do with that the other 364 that becomes so very important,” she said.
More than 50,000 people participated in Komen St. Louis’s annual Race for the Cure this year, and in 2012 the organization has donated $3.1 million to fund 25 local breast health and breast cancer programs. According to Chesnut, 75 percent of all money raised by the St. Louis affiliate stays here and 25 percent goes to the national Komen office to be allocated for research.
This year, Susan G. Komen for the Cure donated $5 million to St. Louis-based research. In one example, Washington University received a grant to develop targeted inhibitors as innovative therapy for the treatment and potential prevention of metastatic breast cancer.
Still, Chesnut feels more can be done. “Until they have found cures, there’s not enough research going on,” she said. “It’s not just about the cure, it’s about the treatments and the causes.”
The need for more research is something many breast cancer advocates agree on. Former president of the St. Louis Breast Cancer Coalition Sue Baebler said that the SLBCC works with the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research program to find “the thing that actually makes a difference.”
“In order for the research to be successful it has to be funded obviously, but it also has to be well executed,” she said. “We focus on quality research that won’t be duplicated with researchers that are well-educated and reporting the research the way it should be reported.”
As a grass roots advocacy organization, SLBCC is made up entirely of volunteers. The group travels to a national advocacy conference every year where the National Breast Cancer Coalition lobbies legislators for funding. Throughout the rest of the year, members work to educate the public about advocacy issues as well as research and awareness.
Too much pink?
One of the ideas discussed in “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” is that of the “pink culture” that has sprung up around breast cancer. Countless charities are working to fight breast cancer, and organizations such as Komen and the Avon Foundation for Women have large national presences.
Breast cancer “is sexy, I think. You know, it’s breasts. It makes for good talking points, good imagery,” Loren Ludmerer, a breast cancer survivor, said. “It’s your mom, it’s your wife, it’s your girlfriend. It touches more people, it touches the heart strings.”
Ludmerer was diagnosed in 2010 and participated in her first Komen Race for the Cure this year, at the urging of her daughter’s friend, whose mother was also recently diagnosed, she said. Although she had not been previously interested in participating, Ludmerer said the race made quite an impression.
“When you go on the walk, when you get to the top of the hill and they tell you look forward and look back, it really is overwhelming and all you can see is other people sharing this experience,” she said.
Still, Ludmerer doesn’t necessarily feel the need to get more involved. “It’s a disease, it’s not a cultural movement,” she said. “It needs to be studied and eradicated and certainly life is always to be celebrated, but to me why would I want to identify with that?”
On the other hand, many survivors and families say that the pink ribbon culture helps them feel connected or creates a sense of solidarity. Angela Speck, a resident of Columbia, Mo., has known several people die from the disease.
After one of her best friends was diagnosed in 1999, Speck said she became involved in publicizing and fund raising for the fight against breast cancer. She has a pink ribbon on each of her family’s cars, she said, and it reminds her to get screened each year.
Matthew Ellis, director of the section of breast oncology at the Washington University School of Medicine, feels similarly. He has a whole drawer of pink ribbons in his office, he said, and they remind him of “the thousands of patients I have cared for.”
“Pink Ribbons, Inc.” particularly calls out some large corporations such as Yoplait Yogurt and American Express, which it accuses of exploiting the breast cancer cause to raise profits. Baebler of the SLBCC echoed that idea. Her organization has tried to get away from the pink culture, she said.
“At the beginning when the awareness was lower maybe it helped a little, but we don’t have an awareness problem anymore,” Baebler said. “Companies are still using it to promote their own companies under the guise of helping breast cancer, and maybe they do donate some money to whatever organization helping breast cancer, but at the same time they use breast cancer to promote their own companies," she said.”
Chesnut acknowledged that sometimes the pink can be overwhelming, but she believes it’s an important part of the fight.
“Until there’s a cure for breast cancer, there can’t be enough pink. Is pink something we all potentially get fatigued from? Absolutely. But if you look at what’s behind the pink, then how can you not support it?” she said.
Another consideration for many involved in the breast cancer movement is access to care for those who can’t afford to pay. While participating in events such as the Komen race or other walks can raise money, those are only part of the equation.
Elaine Seeskin, a breast cancer survivor, said that she was grateful for the community that so much awareness has created, but feels it’s important to help those in worse situations than her own.
“I would like the focus of every fundraising event to be on women who weren’t as fortunate as me, who can’t have routine screenings,” Seeskin said.
Organizations such as Gateway to Hope and the Cancer Support Community in St. Louis provide help for individuals who can’t afford screenings or medical supplies on their own. Komen St. Louis also helps women get care at every step in the process, according to Chesnut.
In addition to monetary help, Komen has made it a priority to reach out to underserved communities, according to Philip Deitch, a member of Komen’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender National Advisory Council. Deitch, who has a long history of civil rights and activism work, sat on Komen’s first National Diversity Council in 2007. He said has been continuously impressed with Komen’s outreach efforts.
“I believe that Komen more than any other organization has shown a big, bright light on this disease,” he said. “We need thoughtful outreach to impact those communities that have special concerns.”
While people may have different reactions to the Komen pink, Deitch said he sees it bringing a wide spectrum of people together. “When I go to the Komen race every year, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a more diverse attendance at any event. … Everyone’s supporting each other and it’s just wonderful,” Deitch said.
The movement against breast cancer has a wide array of players, and while they may not all agree on the best way to achieve their goals, each serves an important purpose for those who support it.
“It makes me happy that there’s money [being spent on breast cancer awareness],” said Angela Speck, the woman whose best friend died of breast cancer. “There are always other things that you could be spending money on, so when I see people supporting a cause I care about it makes me feel good.”