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Beyond Pink-a-Palooza: The Breast Cancer News You’re Not Hearing

Another October has rolled around, and with it pink-ribboned Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Seemingly more than with any other cause, businesses hop on the bandwagon to lend support for this all-too-common women’s cancer through various rosy-hued promotions. Some can seem frivolous (pink M&Ms) or downright suspect (Sutter Home Zinfandel — consuming alcohol is considered a risk factor for the disease).

by John Jonik

This year, cartoonists are getting involved: Today (October 10) King Features Syndicate literally tinted 50 different comic strips pink in honor of BCAM. A few, drawn by women, will have themed storylines. ("Cathy" gets a mammogram?) You can see them all at this “Cartoonists Care” website, where you’ll be encouraged to donate to any of eight breast cancer charities.

If only other women’s issues got this much prominent support! Ending domestic violence, for example. Its emblem is a purple ribbon. Can we get some purple-clad promotions in every mall, please? I didn’t think so. (Although purple ribbons would do multiple duty for disease awareness, as they are also the symbol for many other attention-worthy diseases including lupus and Alzheimer’s.)

But what, exactly, does “awareness” mean? Surely we are all conscious that breast cancer touches one in eight women in her lifetime and that self-care is important. But what that self-care means is no longer as clear as it once seemed: The ideal timing   and ultimate value of mammograms and early detection, for example, are under debate in public health circles.

My maternal grandmother and paternal aunt had breast cancer, and I’m considered at somewhat greater risk for the disease, especially since I menstruated early and never bore children. So I don’t take breast cancer lightly. Which is why I want to offer some under-reported information of which you might not be aware.

The evidence for an environmental link to breast cancer is stronger than ever.

The prevention-oriented Breast Cancer Fund published the latest edition of its “State of the Evidence” (SOTE) report on October 1, 2010. Like previous reports, it points out that while the disease’s origins are complex, genetics and health habits explain only about half the cases, and argues that if exposure to industrial chemicals and excessive radiation can be reduced, it would probably help prevent breast and other forms of cancer.  

Besides updating its usual roundup of scientific findings, SOTE now highlights the impact of environmental risks on most-vulnerable populations, including infants, pregnant women, and African-American women and workers, and includes a new section, “From Science to Action,” which “discusses personal and social changes necessary to create big picture changes in… food, plastics, cosmetics, household products, health care, and air and water,” according to BCF’s Connie Engel. And it outlines what we as individuals can do to reduce our risk of breast cancer now.

Many of the things the Breast Cancer Fund has been saying for years are finally gaining ground. For example, the unhealthy effects of common industrial chemicals, such as BPA in cans and phthalates in personal care products, have come under increased scientific scrutiny, popularized in books such as Slow Death by Rubber Duckand Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Cosmetics”  video.  Ditto the risks of CT scans.

And back in April of this year, the National Cancer Institute’s President’s Cancer Panel released an extensive report on “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk” that implicates many of the same factors mentioned in SOTE and even takes government and industry to task for missing cancer-prevention opportunities. In its opening letter to the President, the Panel writes bluntly: “[The] true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”

Also, the congressionally mandated Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee held its first meeting Sept.30-Oct.1. Tasked with improving and expanding chemical testing to better detect chemicals’ breast cancer risks, the Committee “decried”current testing methods and funding as inadequate (Risk Policy Report, 10/5/10).

Not that you’d know any of this from recent press coverage, at least during the first week of October. My Nexis search of major U.S. news media turned up only a couple articles mentioning links between breast cancer and chemicals or radiation (for example, a Gannett News Service piece that ran in USA Today on 10/4/10).  The Los Angeles Times 10/4 piece (”Breast Cancer: What You Can Control”) didn’t mention chemical connections at all except to warn against hormone replacement therapy and birth-control pills, whose risks we’ve long known about. States News Service, meanwhile, distributed an op-ed by the conservative Independent Women’s Forum that alluded to SOTE, but called it “politicized science” and cited the industry-friendly American Council on Science and Health to argue that “scientists have established time and again that environmental exposures to thes chemicals are not risk factors.”

Though October’s not over, I don’t expect to see much more coverage. Ignoring or downplaying the likely environmental connections to breast cancer is an established trend, as I documented in this investigative article last year.  

So what’s a woman to do? For starters,
Select a solid breast cancer charity for your donation dollars.

According to a different L.A. Times article, “How Much Pink Turns into Green?” (10/4/10), some companies offering to make donations from sales of pink products do so for a limited time only, and others place a cap on the amount they’ll donate to the cause — no matter how many units are sold.

According to the article, the American Institute of Philanthropy grades charities so donors can see which ones “spend most of their revenue on their mission” rather than on overhead for the fundraising itself. Coming out on top is the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (A+). The Breast Cancer Fund gets an impressive A- and the superstar Susan G. Komen for the Cure gets a very respectable B+. But the American Cancer Society received only a C+, and the American Breast Cancer Foundation and Coalition Against Breast Cancer received failing grades.

Which brings us full circle back to the Cartoonists Care promo. None of the “A” -rated breast cancer charities are listed on the site.

And finally,
Learn where the heck that pink ribbon campaign came from in the first place.

Turns out, it started with a woman who wanted nothing to do with it.

This post was originally published at RH Reality Check, a site of news, community and commentary for reproductive health and justice


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