Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Does wearing pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month do any good?

Robin Hanson says:

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s lots of pink on display this month, especially in things that aren’t usually pink. The pink reflects a campaign to “raise awareness about breast cancer”, and I’ve been pondering what about it bugs me the most. . . .

I think I’m . . . bothered by the campaign being less about doing something and more about “awareness”, which translates mostly into social pressure to get other folks to show pink, buying pink products, wearing pink clothes, etc. Much of the money donated goes not to tests or research but to paying celebrities to make more publicity.

Now this social pressure couldn’t really work if it weren’t pretty widely known that showing pink is associated with the breast cancer, which seems at odds with the claim that there is a lack of awareness of breast cancer. Even more at odds is the fact that pink campaigns rarely offer concrete arguments that theirs is an especially worthy cause; it is just assumed that listeners pretty much agree. Really, what fraction of folks don’t know breasts can get cancer, tests might detect it, and academics research it? . . .

[A]nti-breast-cancer is framed as being pro-women. Thus one can insinuate that folks who resist social pressures to support the campaign are anti-women. Since folks fear seeming anti-women much more than seeming anti-health, a breast-cancer campaign can tap into far more social pressure than can an exercise or sleep campaign.

Think pink gets much of its energy by offering a way for folks to be indirectly political; one can seem pro-women, and insinuate that others are anti-women, while only ever explicitly talking about health and medicine. AIDS awareness gets a similar political punch; one can talk only health, yet insinuate that others are anti-gay. Much of medicine is not about health, but about showing that you care, in this case caring about the right political groups.
One good argument for breast cancer awareness would be that breast cancer used to be stigmatized. I'd agree that erasing this stigma is important. But have we not reached the point where the stigma has been successfully erased?

A commenter on Hanson's post notes the irony that the more beneficial an awareness campaign would be, the less likely it is to happen:
There are diseases that are not well known where wider knowledge could significantly improve the lives of those who suffer from it (such as Coeliac). However, because most people are ignorant of them and thus would require a larger time commitment in explaining them, they have little signaling value.
Another commenter says pink culture is actively harmful:
Someone who had breast cancer told me she hates it because it served as a ubiquitous reminder of her illness. Even after she was better, everything from tyres to water bottles made it impossible for her to move on. This seems like a significant cost to sufferers.
This is similar to the critique given by Barbara Ehrenreich, who devotes the whole first chapter of her book Bright-Sided to analyzing pink culture. She argues:
[T]here is a problem when positive thinking "fails" and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment. Then the patient can only blame herself: she is not being positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place. At this point, the exhortation to think positively is "an additional burden to an already devastated patient," as oncology nurse Cynthia Rittenberg has written. (42)
Ehrenreich gives her first-hand experience:
I, at least, was saved from this additional burden by my persistent anger—which would have been even stronger if I had suspected, as I do now, that my cancer was iatrogenic, that is, caused by the medical profession . . . .

Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or more spiritual. (43-44)
What I'd like to know is why certain kinds of cancer seem to be privileged over others. How do the people with less glorified kinds of cancer feel? Maybe they'll turn down a hospital blanket, saying, "'No, not for me . . . . That's for the other people.'"


Jason (the commenter) said...

The people who organize these things just want to get attention so rich people will pay them lots of money to run organizations dealing with the issue. It's about getting attention, not solving a problem, that would put them out of work. (A lesson learned from the gay community.)

Jason (the commenter) said...

I think what we are dealing with here is an example of "institutional capture". It's a concept Liberals don't seem to comprehend. Conservatives at least deal with it a little, with "small government" and Tea Party type movements.

beckett said...

One of the things that bothers me about the pink campaign is that it's become part of the marketing machine of organizations like the NFL. The players all wear a bit of pink for their games and the NFL gets loads of press, lures people to its marketing arm where many will decide to buy more than pink items, and allows them to pose as pillars of the community. On the one hand, any money going to cancer research is positive. On the other hand, it fuels the pervasive idea that the best way to show you care is by consuming and advertising.

"It's about getting attention, not solving a problem, that would put them out of work. (A lesson learned from the gay community.)" What does that mean?

John Althouse Cohen said...

I didn't know about the NFL thing, but I noticed a lot of men walking around town wearing pink to show how aware they are of breast cancer. Subtext: "I'm such a good man that I'm willing to do something that would normally be considered unmanly because I care about women."

Anonymous said...

I think that by wearing pink, it reminds women about how important it is to remind yourself to get a mammogram. Prevention and early detection is the best way of fighting breast cancer. Breast Cancer Awareness month is on its way and it is great to bring awareness to it regardless of the way it is brought to people's attention. Whether from participating in a walk, updating your facebook status, or by wearing a breast cancer ribbon , any effort made to help bring awareness and help find a cure for this disease is a help in many ways.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I think that by wearing pink, it reminds women about how important it is to remind yourself to get a mammogram.

This brings up Robin Hanson's point: in order for the color pink to function as an effective reminder, one needs to already be aware of the importance of getting a mammogram, in which case it's hard to say that the pink and ribbons are really "raising awareness." If it does work as a reminder, that's fine. But it still strikes me as odd that one specific procedure (for one specific segment of the population: women over a certain age), out of all the things people can do to stay healthy, would require so much more fanfare than anything else.