Time to remove the pink ribbons from our lapels and gorge our selves with Halloween candy. As November comes around, our grocery store shelves will turn from pink to the amber hues of Thanksgiving, and before we know it, we’ll be decorating Christmas trees and drinking egg-nog.
After an interminable month of pink ribbons and races, I will still have breast cancer. Not having made it to the five-year mark, I can’t say it’s in remission, and in spite of all the stories we hear about women who have been “cured,” the fact is that breast cancer may recur at any time. Long-term remission is just not the same as being cured.
If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. Again this October, nobody could tell me why I got breast cancer or how I can prevent it from spreading, or why my daughter's favorite teacher got breast cancer, or why some of my blogging friends have found out that their cancer has metastasized. Again, we heard the unrelenting message that the answer to the breast cancer epidemic which will kill 40,000 women in the United States again this year is to get a mammogram, feel the boobies, and raise more money ‘for a cure.”
There was a time when I didn’t mind being bombarded with these messages. I gladly handed over my well-earned cash for the products emblazoned with the ubiquitous pink ribbon, I laced up my running shoes, paid the registration fees to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and I walked, I jogged, I ran for a cure.
Then breast cancer got me. Why me? Nobody could tell me otherwise, so I blamed myself. Was it because I hadn’t done my self-exams every month or breastfed my bab? Maybe it was because I hadn’t exercised enough or had one too many glasses of red wine or maybe because I had waited until I finished my graduate degree and my principal’s certification before I had my baby at the “advanced maternal age” of 34? But there was no family history, and I had dutifully gone for all my mammograms. I had none of the risk factors I’d heard about at Komen events.
Then I found out that less than 30% of people diagnosed with breast cancer are genetically pre-disposed, so I began thinking about the environment. Why the silence about toxins and environmental carcinogens? Shouldn’t the environment be part of the international conversation during Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM)? Especially in America, where, as the President’s Cancer Panel reported in 2010, “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated, and the American people, even before they are born, are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures.”
It is chilling to think of babies already polluted at birth. But - and this should stop all of us in our tracks - under the current law, only 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in America have been tested for safety. These chemicals are found in those products we use every day, in our clothing, cleaning supplies, plastics, perfume, paint, you name it. Industrial chemicals - unlike pharmaceuticals or pesticides - do not have to be tested before they are put on the market.
Surely the people behind BCAM would want the country to be aware of this? Just who are those people anyway? Well, allow me to introduce you to AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical giant that came up with the idea of turning October into the month to be aware. As such, all official BCAM materials must have AstraZeneca’s stamp of approval before being released. In those materials, you will find an unflagging focus on awareness and getting mammograms, but you will probably not find any mention of environmental carcinogens or the need to find what causes or how to prevent breast cancer in the first place. Surprised? Don’t be. AstraZeneca is also the third largest producer of pesticides in America, making billions annually. Every day, the chemical plants at AstraZeneca release potential cancer-causing toxins into our environment. At the same time, AstraZeneca owns Salick Health Care, the leader in hospital based cancer centers.
Oh. Lest I forget, AstraZeneca is the leading producer of Arimidex and Tamoxifen. That’s right. Tamoxifen, perhaps the most prescribed drug for the treatment of breast cancer in pre-menopausal women. October has been astronomically profitable for AstraZeneca, on the one hand selling its cancer treatments, and on the other producing pesticides and a tidy profit. It makes sense, I suppose. If I were in charge of AstraZeneca, I would probably have figured out too, that more awareness means more mammograms, which leads to more diagnoses of breast cancer, and that means more Tamoxifen sales, which, naturally adds up to more cash. How much cash? Well, according to its website, in 2013, AstraZeneca reported sales of $27.5 billion. And that, my friends, was a bitter pill for me to swallow every night at 9 o’clock. There has to be a better way.
Surely there’s a better way to use October? Breast Cancer Action (BC Action) thinks so. A national, feminist grassroots education and advocacy organization that works tirelessly to end the breast cancer epidemic and does so without accepting any financial contributions from cancer treatment facilities, pharmaceutical companies, health insurance organizations, chemical manufacturers, oil companies, or tobacco companies, it is the ONLY breast cancer organization I support with my time and money.
A year ago, their 2013 “Toxic Time is Up!” campaign inspired me to help collect petition signatures at October breast cancer walks. With droves of people out in pink, committed to supporting an end to breast cancer, it should have been easy to get hundreds if not thousands of signatures on the “Toxic Time Is Up! Demand Safe Chemicals for All” petition. All I had to do was collect signatures, and BCAction would deliver them, along with petitions from cities all across America, directly to the committee in Washington DC in charge of this critical cancer prevention legislation.
So off I went, armed with my stack of petitions, to the American Cancer Society’s “Making Strides Against Cancer” walk in Tempe, Arizona, where I noticed the sign announcing that Chevrolet would donate $10 for each test drive to the American Cancer Society’s “Making Strides Against Cancer,” campaign. I don't recall Chevrolet saying much about the auto factories that expose women to all manner of toxins including those benzenes used to manufacture rubber tires, or the chromium and nickel used in welding and machining, or the formaldehyde that is a vital ingredient in the manufacturing of plastics and textiles. All linked to an increased risk of cancer, all covered up in October, all awash in pink.
Naturally, I made my way to the American Cancer Society’s table, never for a moment imagining that they would not only not sign the petition but that they would tell me I was “soliciting” and that I needed to leave. They pointed out that they had paid to be there. Well, I argued, I had paid too - with my right breast and ongoing treatment - but it mattered not. They wouldn’t even listen to what I had to say. When I asked one young woman why she was there, she said "for breast cancer." So she was there for me. Right? I'm not so sure. She just did not want to listen. Not when I tried to tell her about the chemicals in the shampoo she used that morning or the bisphenol A (BPA) in the linings of some of the canned goods in her pantry, or perhaps the flame retardants in her couch or the nonylphenols in her laundry soap. So I walked away.
I lost count of the number of people who refused to sign the petition. Some stand out in my memory - the team of women dressed in pink poodle skirts and pink wigs (ostensibly making strides for breast cancer)who told my daughter, “No, thank you!” when she asked them politely to sign up to support an overhaul of the 1976 Toxic Substances Act. One of them had the nerve to tell her she wasn’t even around in 1976. And then, the final insult - as though I were committing a crime, two police officers approached me and told me I needed to leave. Perhaps if I had been wearing a pink T-shirt or a baseball cap with the Chevrolet logo and an “I’m a Survivor” badge of honor, they would have let me stay.
And then October 2014 arrived and just when we thought the Susan G. Komen Foundation could stoop no lower, the largest breast cancer organization on the planet announced its new partnership with Baker Hughes, a leading global fracking corporation. Together, they pledged to "do their bit for the cure," going as far as to arrange the presentation of a $100,000 check from Baker Hughes to Nancy Brinker of the Komen Foundation, at the Pittsburgh Steelers game last weekend and, in a shameless show of publicity, to distribute 1,000 pink drill bits. Pink drill bits!
Another October, another perfect pink profit cycle whereby Komen will raise millions to try to cure a disease Baker Hughes is helping to cause with 25% of the more than 700 chemicals used in its fracking process linked to cancer!
Again, Breast Cancer Action stepped up to educate people about fracking, about pink-washing, about the need to put women's health before corporate profits, and in just two weeks, they gathered over 168,700 signatures and delivered them to the Komen affiliate in Pittsburgh. At a rally before the Steelers game, BC Action continued to make noise, educating fans about Komen’s partnership with Baker Hughes. Komen heard them too, and in response to public pressure, the check presentation ceremony was moved out of the public eye. Ms. Brinker even sent someone else to do the dirty work, to accept the $100,000 check, to “do their bit for the cure.”
I wish I could end this column by saying that thanks to BC Action and those of us who passed out flyers and signed petitions over the past two weeks that the public outrage was enough to force Komen to do the right thing, to publicly break ties with Baker Hughes, but we're not there yet.
Maybe next October . . .