By Heather Millar
Just as I was starting chemo, in late October 2010, the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer came to San Francisco, where I live. I was driving the carpool for my daughter and her classmates and turned on to city streets just after the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza.
The scene immediately became circus-like: People walked in pink tutus, in pink bunny ears, in pink capes, in pink angel wings. Pink balloons floated by and pink flags fluttered. Music played.
My then 9-year-old daughter, surveying the hoopla, summed up my feelings pretty well when she pleaded, “Mom, please tell me you’re never going to march in pink angel wings.”
I felt pretty terrible that day and didn’t feel much like celebrating the fight against breast cancer. At the time, it was easy to promise my daughter that I wouldn’t wear gauzy pink wings.
Since then, I’ve gone back and forth in my opinions about walks to raise money for various diseases. On the one hand, these walks raise a lot of money. Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the 10-ton pink gorilla of the field, has raised hundreds of millions for breast cancer since its founding in 1982. The Avon Walk I saw that day raised about $5.5 million.
I understand why these walks are so successful: They give people a chance to feel like they’re doing something to fight diseases and problems that are scary and complex. The Komen walks feature a parade of survivors that brings to mind veterans of foreign wars marching in 4th of July parades. I’m sure it feels good to march in those survivor parades. I bet you feel victorious, triumphant. How great it must be to have people clap and cheer for you after you’ve suffered in obscurity for months and years. But I’ve never signed up for a breast cancer walk.
First of all, I don’t want to wear ridiculous pink stuff. But more than that, I don’t think cancer is a reason to celebrate. I think the whole “celebrate breast cancer” strain in our culture distracts us from the reality that women still die from this disease. All the time. More than 40,000 a year in this country alone. Sure, I’m a survivor now. But for how long?
Cancer is a horrible disease, your own cells turning on you and trying to kill you. Cancer remains terrifying because we still understand so little about it, about what really causes it and how to stop it. You can beat it, live for 10 or 20 years, and then it raises its ugly head again.
Further, I question the way that these fundraisers split the cancer community. Why a walk for just breast cancer or just lung cancer or just leukemia? Why not a walk to end CANCER, period? What if all we cancer patients and survivors joined forces? Now, I bet that would be something big.
Recently, I went to see a new, Canadian documentary, Pink Ribbons, Inc., based on a scholarly 2008 book of the same name. The book and documentary question how breast cancer in particular has become a pervasive marketing tool for corporations. Breast cancer Kentucky Fried Chicken? A breast cancer handgun? A breast cancer car?
Pink Ribbons, Inc. also asks this question: Does throwing more money at a problem necessarily solve it? For instance, in 2008, according to the Better Business Bureau, Komen spent the lion’s share of its budget, $134 million, on education. It spent $98 million on research, $37 million on screening, and $22 million on treatment.
I wonder why they spent so much on education. In my humble opinion, you’d have to be in a coma not to know about breast cancer and mammograms these days.
Why, the documentary asks, does so little money go for prevention, or for research into the possible environmental causes of breast cancer? If only 30 percent of breast cancer patients have known risk factors, then do we really know what causes it?
I am willing to bet that we could ask the same questions about all kinds of cancers, and all kinds of social ills. Raising money is good; but we can’t stop there. Money alone does not solve problems.
I’m not saying the walks are bad, only that we should have a discussion about the real tragedies that the walks claim to fight. We should talk about how the money raised could be most efficiently spent. We should applaud survivors, but not forget those who have lost the battle.
So, tell me, why do you walk? And if you don’t, why not?