Symbols Are Stagnant Institutions, Not Solutions, Nancy G. Brinker

Nancy Brinker is “seeing red” over the recent New York Times article detailing how some breast cancer patients are tired of the “pinkification” of disease (see her letter here, see what she is angry about here). Her letter was strange to me, and would be laughable except 1) as the head of Komen her voice will be heard (although she claims she is NOT responding as a Komen representative) and 2) so many people will agree with her, will not look at her defensive whining with a critical and analytical eye.

I find soooooo many problems with her letter—and I’m not even as staunchly anti-Komen as so many other bloggers!! But here are my gripes.

Well, Nancy, you say the Pink Ribbon now symbolizes breast cancer. You’re not wrong there.

You go on to say breast cancer is very personal for you. It is personal for me too, since, you know, I actually was diagnosed with it myself at age 38. It continues to be personal for me as I know I could have a recurrence at any time. It is personal for thousands of other patients currently living with metastatic breast cancer. What makes you think you have a monopoly on personal feelings about breast cancer? Your claim of it being personal just illustrates your tone deafness, your inability to realize the cancer demographic is made up of lots of individuals with VERY different perspectives. We are not homogenous, and no one’s personal relationship with breast cancer is more important than another’s, not even yours.

You say you made a promise to your sister to work to find a cure, to raise awareness for the need for testing, treatment, research, cures, and to raise money for research. Let’s unpack these promises, shall we?

Your first promise, to find a cure, has not been fulfilled. The second promise, to raise awareness, you’ve been successful—congratulations. But that awareness has not translated to meaningful results—see broken promise #1. Instead, you continue to work on “awareness” as if no one is aware, as if you only wish to do what you know, rather than face new challenges. This has made you, your organization, and other pink organizations, stagnant institutions. The stagnation is killing people. Rather than evolving, than checking off the “raised awareness” task from your list, you continue to only do what has been done for 20+ years. That’s why my avatar is the anarchy symbol over “A” (not YOUR, copyrighted) pink ribbon. We need a little anarchy—or at least an overhaul.

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And oh my goodness, the third promise you state in your letter. You’ve raised billions, but has it gone to research? No. More money goes to education, screening (and screening is ALWAYS controversial), and of course to fundraising (it takes money to raise money) than to research (see here, page 7).

You list the (non)-achievements of the Pink Ribbon as allowing Komen to stage races with over a million racers, establishing partnerships in numerous countries, and engaging thousands of volunteers. I am NOT impressed by any of that. Big deal, people ran in races—there are plenty of marathons out there. The partnerships—good grief, look no further than the recent fracking/drill bit fiasco for the worth of those partnerships (but if anyone wants to look further, well, there’s the KFC chicken, the Dietz & Watson—because cured meats are so good for you, and all the shopping, shopping, shopping). And you provided opportunities for volunteers to do what they do: volunteer. Hey volunteers are gold. But their work needs to be meaningful. It seems all the work has achieved is perpetuating your stagnant institution.

You close with “Pink Ribbons matter”. I hope that was NOT a reference to the “#(whatever)livesmatter” campaigns. Komen has already proven time and again their inability to come up with original ideas. See your own admission about “borrowing” the red ribbon idea from the AIDS movement. How about the elephant stolen from METAvivor last year in that stupid Kohl’s campaign?

Originality is part of evolution.

Yes, lives matter, mine too. Most of the non-achievements did not benefit me. Early detection and screening? Nope—I tried that, but the mammogram (or rather the radiologist) did not find my cancer. Sure, the awareness raised by pink ribbons funded research that created drugs like Herceptin, which allows me to still be here writing this critique. However, unless I’m mistaken, the money raised for Herceptin research came from Avon—but never mind, let the ribbon’s ubiquity claim that prize. But all the races, pink ribbons, and volunteers did not prevent me from getting cancer in the first place. Ribbons won’t prevent my likelihood of recurrence and metastasis.

Right now, Pink Ribbons don’t matter. Even non-breast cancer patients are tired of them, have become immune, sometimes blind to them. (That was one of the points of the piece to which you object–how did you miss that?) Pink Ribbons are stagnant and Pinktober has become an institution, celebrated right along with Halloween. They symbolize breast cancer, but the threats to me and others remain. The death rate has not really changed. (Sure, there are more survivors, but the controversy surrounding the screening debates can tell anyone that it’s easy to create more survivors, if you create more patients that maybe never should’ve been called patients. But I digress). That symbol is no solution for my breast cancer, for my friends’ cancers.

Here is my challenge to you Brinker—realize how ridiculous Komen has become and do something about it. I think Komen is incapable of evolution. Prove me wrong.

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