Unnecessarily Pink

My entry into the #WhyIsThisPink fray is a bit different but important to me. I get that most submissions are the silly, pinkwashed items created simply to fatten the bottom line of corporations using the color to get some goodwill from mostly female shoppers. So why have I chosen to submit here a picture of the cancer center where I was treated, all aglow from the soft pink light shining on it for the month of October?


I’ve ranted about this in What Do You Mean There Are OTHER Kinds of Cancer Besides Breast?!–three (3!) years ago (but this picture was taken only a few days ago). Here is what I said about it then:

I do not understand the need for breast cancer awareness…at a cancer center, for crying out loud. A building that exists as a place to treat cancer patients is the epitome of all cancer awareness. Thus, a pink light becomes overkill, a pink light becomes the favoring of patients with breast cancer—their lives? their money?—over all other cancer patients, a pink light becomes the shoving of a cause down many gagging throats.

I still hold the same opinion. Yes, businesses selling alcohol, deli meats, and cosmetics (all things that might increase cancer risk), are worthy of calling out. But a cancer center bathed in pink light–a center that does NOT use other colored lights in other months–is far worse to me.

No, I’m not flirting with conspiracy theory here–this isn’t some Big Pharma/Medical Industry-is-withholding-the-cure-because-it’s-more-lucrative-to-keep-cancer-patients-in-treatment tinfoil hat kind of thing. I revisit the medical industry ethics as I’ve done before in Medical Obligations and SELL!. It is important to keep in mind how hospitals/cancer treatment centers sell their services with some of those questionable messages: “your cancer can be an opportunity for personal growth”. Or the how the existence of breast care ONLY facilities make breast cancer a proxy for all of women’s health, when we all know heart disease is the actual number one killer of women, with lung cancer coming in at number two. Medical institutions emphasizing breast care to play into fears of women rather than correcting those fears (to get their money?) is tantamount to medical misinformation. And the result in me is even more mistrust than I already had.

I’m aware some medical professionals object to being called health care providers, insisting they are not mere service providers. But I think it is important for people (especially in the US) to keep in mind that we do indeed purchase care, and it is costly. To remove the monetary element, as if talking about money is somehow gouache when it’s about “saving lives”, this is just wrong. Patients and “providers” alike need to get over it. For me at least, the financial aspect of cancer is a big part of the ongoing stress of cancer.

And I reiterate, a pink light on a cancer treatment center just screams out to me this message: so many women, so much breast cancer, let’s lure them here, we need those customers, whoops, we mean patients. Always remember, we are both of those.

That’s the money side, the pink-for-profit side, of my entry into #WhyIsThisPink. But of course I have more.

What really bothers me about a pink-lit cancer center is that it reinforces how Pink has become such a Godzilla that all other cancer patients are feeling ignored and angrier with each passing year. I’ve noticed an increase this year (keep in mind this is just my perception here) of angry reactions when we criticize the perky Pink. Or even in pieces that do NOT criticize Pink, but rather embrace it. “What about X cancer?” inevitably pops up.

I can understand this anger to a point. As I stated in the above referenced blog post:

This is what Pink has come to; some perceive it as edging out absolutely every other disease and cause in an obnoxious way, and one’s perception is his or her reality. It is not exactly clear who these patients hold responsible for all this shoving down of the throat. The pieces I’ve seen and read do not seem to differentiate between products with ribbons on them (the kind that claim to send a few pennies to a charity or the ones that just have a pink ribbon with no such claim), pink parade-like races, or people wearing anything from tiny pink ribbon pins to head to toe pink-logoed ensembles. Perhaps it appears all the same to the very frustrated.

I can understand how ungrateful we must sound when we criticize all the Pink crap. But my understanding of this has developed a limit. (For starters, I again refer to Burden of Gratitude.) The other day I actually saw someone ask in a comments section “why does breast cancer get all the attention?” Really? The concept that there is no such thing as a dumb question is a lie–THAT is a dumb question. Breast cancer gets all the attention because sex sells, and well, boobies. Anyone who does not understand that clearly does not understand the concept of advertising and that is inexcusable in the 21st century. Grow up.

I’ve said before that awareness is a two way street. All the corporations and people drenched in Pink, making breast cancer sexy and cute in the name of “awareness” need to become AWARE of the unintended consequences, which is the impact on other cancers. That would be the resentment, the ill will that is now becoming apparent from advocates of other diseases. Yes, I realize not ALL advocates display this resentment, but it is there, and deserves acknowledgement. And it isn’t just the Pink pushers that should be mindful of what is going on. I have voiced before, and do so again, strenuously, that resorting to the comparison, the “what if everyone made X cancer sexy” is a tone deaf and insulting method. Some cancers/diseases are so ignored, that many would welcome ANY kind of attention. Just as it does for some members of the breast cancer community, the “any awareness is good awareness” point of view rules.

Now, of course, I think that viewpoint is wrong-headed. I am merely acknowledging how tone deaf that particular comparison comes off when breast cancer patients, with our “first ribbon problems”, drag out the “let’s make X cancer sexy” cliche. But here’s the thing: I’ve seen so much in the way of knee-jerk reactions this year–and very little listening, very little effort to understand the many well thought out arguments we make. It is very easy for advocates to snap, “X cancer should be so lucky, look at all the money/attention breast cancer gets”. It is time for all awareness, not just breast cancer awareness to grow up, to become savvy. The issues of unjust fund allocation to metastatic breast cancer has been explained time and again. The issue of how so many businesses slap a pink ribbon on something and donate very little or even nothing, has be explained repeatedly. The theory that all this rah rah visibility has “cured” breast cancer so that it is a “good” cancer has been debunked thoroughly. Yet, these issues must be re-explained each October. And it seems rather than actually reading/listening/comprehending, all I see is knee-jerk reactions “stop biting the hand that feeds and pay attention to X disease.”

Maybe we ALL need to stop and take a breath and have some kind of discussion in which a side is presented and another side is not allowed to respond for a few minutes. That old adage about listening to respond rather than to understand, or that idea that 51% of communication is listening (NOT talking), these things are true. The problems with Pink are being explained, thoroughly, carefully. But we don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

I guess this is why I have not been able to write a post in a few weeks. It is difficult enough to explain The Way Things Are In Pink CancerLand during the year; in Pinktober it seems impossible.

I return to my #WhyIsThisPink submission of a cancer treatment center bathed in pink light–an insult to the patients with other cancers who are also treated there. We’ve got to move forward and evolve in all disease discussions. That pink light on a cancer treatment facility is blinding everyone. Turn it off.

Supporting The Show?

Weariness and fatigue will make me do anything, I suppose. Last October I voiced frustrations I had with a few words and phrases, like “awareness”, “show support/support breast cancer”, and every single slang word in existence for breasts (Some Word Problems). In that post I mentioned that part of the reason I disliked “show support” was because it always seemed like some people were more about the “show” portion of that phrase, rather than the “support” part. The post was about being tired of hearing those words and phrases to the point that they had lost meaning for me, so I did not want to delve into what really bugs me about “showing support”. Plus, I was afraid my thoughts were too harsh to be shared.

If I’m harsh, so what?

This time of year, the ads and pleas to go bald (whether for real or wearing a shower cap thingie) or do some Pink thing to show support for “sisters” with breast cancer overload my senses via many forms of media. I understand that many people succumb to these ads and buy a silly trinket, wear a t-shirt, or put a sticker on a car, with good intentions, with good hearts. They think by being public with their caring about their friend/relative with breast cancer will please that person. And maybe it does please some patients. But not me.

I wrote about my frustration with all the head-shaving-in-solidarity a couple of years ago. I still think it is rather useless compared to acts like cooking for a patient, or simply listening to a patient’s many fears. I remember around the time I wrote that post there was a small kerfuffle about some young girl getting sent home from her school for shaving her head to show support for her bald friend with cancer (it violated some dress code). So much outrage in social media about it—so much praise for the bravery of the head-shaver; the girl with cancer wasn’t mentioned much. While I think it is great kids show empathy, I could not help but think that scenarios like that teach future adults at a young age that the “show” is the most important aspect. Yes, I am a cynic—read other posts on this blog!

Now, before anyone starts howling at me; YES I know there is no one way to do cancer and I have no right to criticize those embracing Pink while expecting respect for rejecting Pink (not going down THAT road today, but see Reciprocity and Respect). And YES, as stated above, I know that many people wish to show support with the best of intentions, thinking it is the right thing to do, as it is so socially acceptable and all.

But why is it socially acceptable—why is there this ongoing trend of advertising oh so publicly: “I CARE, I HELPED”? And no, this is not an issue limited to cancer.

I actually began noticing this well before I got cancer. Working in the non-profit sector and managing volunteers, I saw how frequently volunteers expected a little “prize” for their contributed time and efforts. I especially noticed the same volunteers wanting the same t-shirt emblazoned with the word “volunteer”, year after year. I knew they must have a couple from previous years; wearing those would’ve helped my budget—because while the shirts were cheap, they were not free. (Contrary to popular belief, businesses are not tripping over themselves to donate to the many, many non-profits in existence, all with outstretched hands: “please give”.) But I thought back then, cruelly perhaps, that some people really liked showing off: “look I helped!”

And yes I point the finger at myself too. Many years ago I would participate in a walk for a local animal shelter, and there were the usual t-shirts and other “prizes” for money collected. I wore my t-shirt proudly—“look, I raised money, I’m a good person!” But as years wore on and I had less disposable income, I began to resent when national animal organizations would send t-shirts and notepads to entice me back into giving donations. It was money wasted; I don’t have the money, and the dollars buying “prizes” should’ve been used for sheltered animal care. But perhaps the t-shirts were donated and I should not complain (and they may have gotten a discount for mailing that stuff out, but it was not free, in my limited experience, the USPS does not do freebies).

You can kind of get the picture as to how I got cynical about showing “I helped”, right?

This cynical view has been confirmed many times over now that I reside in CancerLand. I especially noticed it a couple of summers ago when some centerfold models jumped out of airplanes topless—you know, setting boobies really free—for awareness. When criticized, one of the models/participants protested back and the usual “you should be grateful we’re doing this for you” finger-wagging, and the “my (insert relative here) had breast cancer and she has/had no problem with this type of thing”, comments left everywhere ensued. I noticed it again more recently this past summer, with the soda bottle incident. The reactions by the porn organization that instigated the stunt to the outcry directed at them were almost laughable. It’s so clear at times like these that applause for all this “support” being showcased is expected. How is that NOT about self-display?

I was relieved last year to learn I was not the only person who looks at all the instances of setting ta-tas free (with a selfie to document the act), or just plain old wearing of slogan-saturated apparel, with some cynicism. I ran across an interview (transcript) about all the “Boston Strong” t-shirts that were the item to wear on the anniversary of the deadly marathon incident. Here was the part that caught my ear:

SMITH: Dobens says getting the shirt is as important to people as giving the donation.

DOBENS: It has this idea of, like, I have proof now that I helped. I can show people that I really, really care about the people that I’m helping.

JOSEPH BURGO: It’s hard not to get cynical about this stuff.

SMITH: Psychologist and author Joseph Burgo says he understands the underlying feelings of solidarity and defiance. But he can’t help but cringe at people feeling that their every sentiment has to be tweeted or posted or literally, worn on their sleeve.

BURGO: I mean, why wear anything? You know, I think that there’s a kind of a feeling that unless you share your experience with other people – like, it isn’t entirely real to you unless you announce it to other people. It’s just part of this narcissistic culture of ours, where everything is about self-display.

SMITH: It’s almost as if people are using the Boston Strong brand to brand themselves, which raises a whole other concern; that Boston Strong is not actually a brand, and isn’t trademarked. So anyone can sell it whether or not any money goes to charity
That last bit about where does the money go—that wouldn’t sound familiar now, would it? Yes, being sarcastic.

Of course, I must consider the power of The Show. Seeing a sea of people wearing pink t-shirts is a strong visual statement: “wow, lots of people have to deal with breast cancer, we better do something about it, because it must be a huge problem”. And then public perception and pressure follow and that is how charities start raising money, and politicians start granting funds for research. I’m sure politicians want to “show” they are doing something (don’t get me started there). Seeing a sea of pink reminds women of how common the cancer is—better get that mammogram! (Otherwise known as “awareness”). I see the big picture, and understand the power of the movement.

But I still cannot help but wonder if something got lost along the way.

Many other bloggers and journalists have written extensively about how buying that feel-good pink-drenched item really doesn’t result in much money going where it can be useful. It’s pointless for me to repeat information that is easy to find, especially since most readers of this blog already know what I’m talking about.

And truly, I’m not trying to hit out at everyone—cancer patients or not—who wears Pink slogans or slaps them on cars. In fact, I’ve been wondering if now “self-display” will be lobbed at those of us who’ve posted pictures of our scars in a retaliation of sorts to crap like no bra day. I see more and more mainstream articles featuring women baring scars with or without non-cosmetic tattoos. While personally I hope to provide solace for those facing the same surgery, and to combat the “sexy” campaigns, I’m sure some would say it is “showing off”. I’m still on the fence about this, and beginning to contemplate removing my pictures for the “show off” aspect, as well as a few other reasons (see Random Thoughts On Baring the Scars).

Do I have the solution for this? Of course not—I never do. I am merely pointing out that for me it was easy to become cynical about “The Showing of Support”. I seriously doubt I will ever think head-shaving in solidarity is useful, especially compared to activities like cooking or cleaning for a patient—you know, regular, grunt work that doesn’t make for a good photo-op. Personally I did not have to endure any incidents of having someone do something personally more of a “show” when I would’ve required more of that someone, but I’m sure others do have such stories (feel free to share those incidents in comments). And while I cringe when I see the sea of pink and all it represents to me (see Take the Mythical Image of the Strong Warrior Breast Cancer Survivor And Bury HER Once & For All), I understand the power of that image.

I wonder if society will ever get to a point when we can stop supporting the show.

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