One is a friend (age 32) in hospice care right now due to stage 4 breast cancer.
Another is another friend (age 35) who started her initial chemo treatments for breast cancer on the exact day that I started mine four years ago, at a similar stage and with a similar pathology, who’s now suffering from the effects of the disease’s spread to her liver.
And another is me. I'm experiencing complications left over from my treatments that have already required an invasive surgery and may call for more. But I'm grateful for my health and for every day that I wake up, work, raise my voice and engage in my life.
That engagement includes what I’m doing right now: calling out the importance of "Pink Ribbons Inc.," a documentary by renowned Canadian director Léa Pool, which opened in New York and Los Angeles on June 1 and will be rolling out to theaters nationally through the end of July.
Funding related to breast cancer—who gets the money raised and how it is used—has been a topic on the minds of potential donors for years, given the vast number of charities and the often disconcerting items for sale that feature the cause's pink ribbon. (Pink-ribbon vacuum cleaner, anyone?)
The issue took a dramatic turn this past winter, when the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, the biggest breast cancer-based charity in the United States, announced it would be suspending the funding it had previously given to Planned Parenthood. The stated reason, as many readers may recall, was that Planned Parenthood was the subject of a government investigation.
But that began to seem highly politicized when it turned out that Karen Handel, Komen’s public-policy vice president who instituted this policy against those undergoing an investigation, ran for governor of Georgia on a platform that included opposition to the entire Planned Parenthood agency.
Examining Money Trails
Into this contentious environment comes "Pink Ribbons, Inc.," which looks at the money trails circling around and through breast cancer charities, charity items and charity drives.
If you do buy that pink-ribbon vacuum (or the jewel-encrusted pink ribbon pin, or an item that author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich incredulously describes in the film: a pink-furred pink ribbon teddy bear, marketed to grown-women survivors), which charity or charities will benefit and how much of the purchase price will they receive? When you participate in a race, walk, tournament, etc. held to benefit a breast cancer-related charity, what will happen to the money you raise?
These questions are all the more pressing given breast cancer's widespread reach (in the United States, estimates are that one woman is diagnosed with the disease every three minutes) and its ubiquity as a charitable cause.
The daughter of a breast cancer patient in the film says, "You feel hopeless—and like you want to do something." Who wouldn't want to do something to help? Who wouldn't want to participate in an event or purchase an item that will, presumably, assist survivors while also working toward a cure for the disease?
If only it were that simple. The film notes that charity events generally state how much money was raised but not how that money will be used. In fact, the events themselves are expensive to produce, eating heavily into profits; not to mention advertising costs, organizational overhead and countless other expenses.
Corporate sponsorship helps to ease costs but can introduce other problems. Cosmetics companies, for example, are frequent sponsors of breast cancer charity events—but the film speaks of how ingredients in many mass-market cosmetics have been linked to increased cancer risk. (The Environmental Working Group can help those concerned to wade through their options.)
Yoplait Yogurt's charitable campaign is also examined. For 13 years now, Yoplait has called for consumers to send in their yogurt lids during the four-month campaign; Yoplait will donate 10 cents per lid to the Komen foundation (up to the amount of $1.2 million). However, in 2008 activists pointed out that Yoplait contained recombinant bovine growth hormone, the ingestion of which has been linked to breast cancer. In addition, consumers would have to eat three cups of Yoplait every day for four months to raise $36, with far more money spent on yogurt, of course. In this case, the activists were heard: Yoplait eliminated the growth hormone from its yogurt in 2009.
But the issue of the donation amount remains. It's certainly more cost efficient and proactive for the consumer to write her own check, choose the charity to which she donates, claim the charitable tax write-off herself and reduce her yogurt expenses.
American Express's campaign was even stingier, with one cent donated to a breast cancer charity per purchase with an American Express card. Not per dollar spent or even per 10 dollars—just per purchase. Buying a $50 item? One cent would be donated. A $700 item? Still one cent. The campaign was halted in the wake of activist protests.
Painful Issues, Questions
The film addresses these and other important, and often painful, issues and questions, including societal attitudes.
Komen founder Nancy Brinker is shown stating in an interview that anger doesn't motivate. But is that true, or is good cheer simply an easier attitude to handle?
I have often wondered why smiling women wear pink boas as they complete their charity walks for breast cancer causeswhile AIDS activists in the ‘80s bore their friends' coffins through the streets.
When the NFL (facing what the film describes as a "character issue") puts pink ribbons on its players' helmets, who is the action helping and how?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, as a fit, yoga-doing vegetarian. I was 40, which is young for a breast cancer diagnosis, but many of my friends who've also been diagnosed are even younger.
The Komen/Planned Parenthood debacle made me angry, but this film pushed my anger to the point of tears.
I cried as I watched cheerful women in pink participating in charitable events (I have been one of them—quite a few times now). I cried as I watched the interviews with women who have stage 4 breast cancer, which is categorized as terminal. I cried as I thought of my own dear friends, some of whom are so ill right now and some whose lives have been lost to breast cancer. My life is poorer without the friends I’ve lost. The world is poorer overall.
The film correctly urges potential donors and event participants to choose mindfully when committing time and money. We don't need more pink ribbon gear for its own sake. We need more research, an eye to prevention, better treatments, a halt to the losses.