Chapel Hill: Opinion

Terri Buckner: Don’t fall for breast-cancer ‘pinkwashing’

October was designated as Breast Cancer Awareness Month more than 20 years ago by the pharmaceutical company that manufactures Tamoxifen, the chemotherapy drug used to treat breast cancer.

Each year more and more commercial products are “pinked,” under the guise of building awareness of the need for a breast cancer cure – while building product awareness and reputation with women.

Millions of dollars of research funding have been generated through pink ribbon campaigns. But there is a dark side to that success. Supporting companies and organizations that support breast cancer research may make you feel like you are part of a solution, but where is the money really going? According to Ms. Magazine, only 8 percent of NFL gear sold during Breast Cancer Industry Month goes to cancer research. And that’s just one example of the lack of accountability.

Financial accountability is one issue, but it’s not the only one. Breast Cancer Action, a watchdog group, coined the term “pinkwashing” to describe companies that use pink to promote products that contain toxic chemicals. Avon and Yoplait are just two examples of companies that contribute generously to finding a cure for breast cancer while continuing to use known carcinogens in their products. This year the most outrageous pinkwashing award goes to Baker Hughes, Inc. a manufacturer of drill bits, which in conjunction with the Susan G. Komen Foundation, has turned its fracking drill bits pink. Many of the 600 chemicals used for fracking are known carcinogens.

In our community, the officers, investigators and K-9 units of the Carrboro Police Department are wearing pink ribbons on their uniforms and patrol cars. The Chapel Hill Fire Department has switched to pink uniforms to “show support for ALL cancer patients and their families!” The UNC football and volleyball teams will be wearing pink jerseys to raise money to support breast cancer survivors at the N.C. Cancer Hospital. The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center promotes these efforts as part of their ongoing fundraising efforts.

Wearing pink is not pinkwashing, but the abuse of pink does tarnish these community efforts. In the eyes of many breast-cancer survivors, such as those who run the Facebook site “Pinkwashing Hall of Shame,” pink is synonymous with exploitation. One patient wrote about the “feel-good, just-wear-a-pink-ribbon-but-don’t-ask-how-you-got-cancer kind of mentality.” While cancer patients go broke paying for their treatments, pinkwashing businesses are getting rich. While patients undergo months of treatment, pinkwashing companies continue their use of toxic, cancer-causing chemicals.

We don’t need more awareness building, not for breast cancer or any other type of cancer; we need coordinated research on how to prevent cancer. Going forward, I challenge the community to put aside the pink, forego the walks, and contribute generously to charitable organizations that are making a real difference in preventing and treating cancers of all types. The Charity Navigator can help you identify national organizations that use their funds responsibly. For the month of October, charities that work to prevent and cure breast cancer can be found under their Hot Topics menu.

Local efforts and organizations, beyond UNC Lineberger, that take positive cancer-fighting actions include:

• The county’s Smoke Free Public Places program helps county residents stop smoking. Preventing cancer is one of the most important actions we can take.

• The Be Loud Sophie Foundation raises funds to bring youth-related support services into local hospitals. Hospitals are socially sterile environments which take an especially high toll on young people.

• Cornucopia Cancer Support Center provides valuable services for people with cancer and their families.