The trouble with pinkwashing

How breast cancer awareness campaigns can be more inclusive and offer an accurate representation of the disease

It is a story you may have heard before: the original breast cancer ribbon was not pink but peach coloured. It was created in the early 1990s and handed out in supermarkets by American advocate Charlotte Haley to demand increased funding for cancer prevention. When Haley refused to work with Self Magazine and Estée Lauder, who were both interested in the ribbon, they changed its colour from peach to ‘150 pink’ – the pastel shade we have now come to associate with breast cancer awareness. And every October (Breast Cancer Awareness Month), its presence is dialled to the max: ‘tis the season for pink burgers, golf tees, and moisturizers.

This commodification has become known as pinkwashing: where companies release pink versions of their products with the aim of donating a portion of their proceeds to charities. While it may seem harmless, pinkwashing can have very real and negative consequences. For instance, when messaging about breast cancer is overwhelmingly pink, the disease itself becomes associated with the feminine, when we know that breast cancer affects people of all genders. The use of pinkwashing becomes particularly problematic when it is used to sell products that contain carcinogens (chemicals that can cause cancer). But more than this, pinkwashing can lead to misconceptions about the disease and our needed responses to it.

Breast cancer background: beyond the pink

Sometimes, breast cells change and stop growing or behaving normally, and these changes can lead to what is known as breast cancer. Breast cancer remains the world’s most prevalent cancer and the leading cause of cancer death for Canadians aged 30 to 49. Though the five-year, net survival rate for breast cancer is 88 percent, these rates vary based on the cancer stage and other health factors. If someone’s breast cancer metastasizes (spreads to other parts of the body), their five-year life expectancy drops to 22 percent. Women under 35 have a worse prognosis than post-menopausal women.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, treatment can depend on a variety of factors: stage of the cancer, the risk of reoccurrence, whether one has reached menopause, one’s overall health, and results from biopsied tissue. Options range from surgery, radiation, hormone therapy, chemotherapy, and other therapy combinations. Learning about risk factors (such as family history) and getting age-appropriate screening are important ways to identify cancer early, making treatment more likely to be successful.

From messaging to misconceptions

Breast cancer awareness is not the same as knowledge and too much of it can be distracting. In a 2018 media interview, Gayle Sulik, author of Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health, explained that pinkwashing can limit “our ability to comprehend what it’s really like to face the disease, live with medical uncertainty, and accept the difficult realities of risk, recurrence, treatment, and even death.” Simply put, all the pink messaging we see about breast cancer undermines how complex and devastating the disease actually is.

When breast cancer is oversimplified for the public, it also means we gloss over health inequities, such as how Black women are more likely to die of breast cancer than white women, despite similar incidence rates between the two groups. Moreover, the overwhelming focus on cis-women’s experiences with breast cancer means that concerns of LGBTQIA+ and gender non-binary populations go underserved and underrepresented in research.

Access to accurate health information has been identified as an urgent health challenge and a matter of public safety – an issue we have seen as misinformation proliferates online related to COVID-19. My point here is not that breast cancer awareness campaigns are inherently mis-informative. Rather, it is that we should question how this pink aesthetic influences the way we think about and respond to the disease. First and foremost, personal health questions are always best answered by a healthcare provider. And when seeking health information online, it is important to consider who has published or authored it, what the overall goal of the information is, and what sources are used to back up its claims.

Acclaimed cancer activist Barbara Brenner once noted that words matter because “people are far less likely to take action when they believe that a problem has been resolved.” This October, let us remember that there are a lot more words to the story of breast cancer than ‘150 pink.’

Nina Morena (she/her) is a PhD student in the department of Art History and Communication Studies. Her research investigates the social media practices of young people with metastatic breast cancer.

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