The Bad Girls of Cancer

Tonight was my last yoga class with two real breasts. I thought about it as we lay face down on the floor to do our leg stretches. We did a lot of back arches, too, and I wondered when I would be able to do them again. I was excited that my Bad Girls of Breast Cancer t-shirt came in the mail today so I could wear it to yoga. The front has a big black X on it over my left breast, so I thought that was especially appropriate. I ordered it from the Breast Cancer Action folks, and I like their attitude. My politics are aligned with theirs, as far as I can tell; they criticize the mainstream Pink Ribbon people for being so corporate-sponsored, and they want to get at the environmental causes of cancer. I don't know if their method of going city by city to ban certain chemicals is the best way to go. I don't honestly know the best way to go. They're based in San Fran, and are apparently a force there, though if I get my friends to plaster the BCA Cancer Sucks stickers everywhere here, they might get notice in our fair city or a sliver of my fair neighborhood. In Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, Miriam Engelberg fantasizes about a Cancer Channel. On her imaginary detective show, one cop says, "Uh oh--it's the Pink Ribbon Gang going head-to-head with the Cancer Sucks Gang." The other responds: "I'll call for backup!"

You don't have to go far to find criticism of the Pink Ribbon people. Our Bodies Our Blog noted Feb. 1 that the newly-named Susan G. Komen for the Cure spent $1 million for advertising. It has new slogans, and they're shown on photos of t-shirts worn by women's torsos (no heads). The t-shirts say: "When we get our hands on breast cancer, we’re going to punch it, strangle it, kick it, spit on it, choke it and pummel it until it’s good and dead. Not just horror movie dead but really, truly dead. And then we’re going to tie a pink ribbon on it." And, "If you’re going to stare at my breasts you could at least donate a dollar to save them." I agree that this new campaign or "branding" sexualizes breast cancer. But you can't blame Komen for sexualizing the breasts. L says the ads are aimed at funders, which is true. I don't think looking at such messages on billboards is going to make someone decide to get a mammogram. Barbara Ehrenreich covered this ground in her essay, Welcome to Cancerland: " ... breast cancer would hardly be the darling of corporate America if its complexion changed from pink to green. It is the very blandness of breast cancer, at least in mainstream perceptions, that makes it an attractive object of corporate charity and a way for companies to brand themselves friends of the middle-aged female market." The I Blame the Patriarchy blogger is blunter: "Komen, it can’t have escaped your eagle eye, is the author of those asinine, pink-visored 'Race For The Cures,' as well as that most pernicious arm of the megatheocorporatocracy responsible for turning breast cancer — which used to be a vile disease that kills people but is now a sweet little personal struggle that gives middle aged white women the golden opportunity to grow — into branded 'awareness.' Breast Cancer Awareness the Brand, with its army of unpaid pink volunterrorists, sells, with unprecedented success, everything from cars to football to potato chips. All, remarkably, without making the slightest dent in breast cancer deaths."

I don't know if this last is true. I usually oppose the Establishment on principle, whether it's supporting pink ribbons, high heels, or war. I like being angry at the Pink Ribbon people, but wonder if my anger is misdirected. I remember how angry I was at the inept radiation Fellow who called me to say that the biopsy was "positive," never daring to utter the word "cancer." I was irate, and at the same time wondering if I was blaming the messenger. I disliked the Fellow for being awkward and defensive and shifty. I dislike the corporate-studded races for the cure, and marathons for AIDS and bicycle races for MS, because I don't think they raise enough money and they are set up to make the participant Feel Good. They're like the annual program where you go to participating restaurants on a certain Thursday night and a percentage of your bill is donated to AIDS. You get to eat well and feel good about giving. But is all that really so bad, Cancer Bitch? Isn't sugar-coated philanthropy better than no philanthropy at all? Isn't it better that 75 percent of the take goes toward research instead of 100 percent of nothing? But what kind of research? I don't know for certain. Breast Cancer Action presses for more research on the link between cancer and the environment, and pesticides, and plastics additives. BCA studied the side effects of new drugs. The tiny groups should be allowed to criticize the big group, the humongous group, for becoming so blind-sided by its own dog-and-pony show that it loses sight of its original mission. It becomes impure. It's hard to be big and successful and pure.

Was it ever pure? I think Komen was founded in grief, and I think that was pure.


In yoga, my friend G thought my shirt said The BALD Girls of Cancer. In time, in time.