Thinking critically about Pink Week

Image credit: James Palinsad

Last week a friend asked me why I wasn’t coming to the Pink Week Ball. 'It’s for breast cancer’ she said. Unable to find a way to point out the error in her word-choice and explain my misgivings about the campaign, I told her I was busy and that I hadn’t heard about it in time to get organised. Naturally, I had heard about it - it would have been impressive if I’d managed to avoid it. At this time of year, Cambridge is awash with Pink: Pink Week formals, Pink Week runs, a Pink Week play and, of course, the Pink Week Ball. The campaign’s motives are essentially admirable - to raise funds and awareness for Breast Cancer charities, some very worthy ones - and I respect the effort and determination which the committee shows. But Pink Week plays into a damaging wider rhetoric around breast cancer awareness which often trivialises, glamorises and sexualises the disease. Issues such as over-diagnosis are often overlooked, and some of the campaign’s partnerships are ill-considered. Being at an all-female college, and with a mother who has had breast cancer, I have often felt the weight of expectation to go to Pink Week events particularly heavily. So why exactly have I decided not to support Pink Week and many popular breast cancer awareness campaigns?

Breast cancer is not sweet or fun or sexy. Yet with their trivial hashtags (#haveasqueeze, #pinkfam) and tyrannical merriment, many campaigns insist on making it so. There are many examples of the disease being almost literally sugar-coated: boob cupcakes, boob biscuits, boob versions of anything-edible-that-comes-in-a-pair (sorry to those who are post-mastectomy - lopsided just doesn’t sell), and the particularly distasteful image from this year’s Pink Week of a pink bubble-gum bubble with a nipple. The name of the popular CoppaFeel! charity is a thinly veiled joke about sexual assault, and this same charity provides its teams with giant, wearable boobs to sport at festivals and universities (including Cambridge) for passers-by to grope in the name of awareness. Nice.

Of course, this perspective is not unique to Pink Week, but stems from both the larger issues of charity and wider media representation of the disease. However, Pink Week itself has made some unmindful partnership choices. One of these is its link with Uber - a company notorious for their poor employment practices, including not paying their drivers the minimum wage or granting sick pay.

But early detection saves so many lives, right? The ‘early detection’ mantra is repeated again and again on the Pink Week Facebook page and beyond, but numerous reputable studies have questioned the truth of this assumption. Screening mammography – the chief tool in the world of ‘early detection’ - is indeed good at detecting tiny tumours. And it is particularly good at picking up the slow-growing low-grade cancers which are least likely to cause harm in an individual’s natural life time. This means that some people are unnecessarily diagnosed and treated with surgery, radiography and long-term medication. Studies in Sweden, Canada and the US have all concluded that those screened are much more likely to be overdiagnosed than to have their lives saved by screening.

Overdiagnosis is a risk that many people are prepared to take. My point is that they need to be aware that it is a real risk.  Repeated declarations that early detection saves lives ignore that risk, and lead people to conclude that every growth found by a mammogram is life-threatening. Breast cancer treatment – whether necessary or unnecessary - leaves lifelong physical and mental scars, to which, for some, is added to the burden of uncertainty about the treatment decisions they have taken. Individuals can never know if they are among the overdiagnosed or not. That’s all quite a risk, I’d say.

I am not advocating not checking your breasts (do!). I am not advocating not going for mammograms when invited. This should be a decision which each person must weigh up. But the beguilingly simple messages peddled by Pink Week and many similar campaigns obscure the complexities and dilemmas face by those invited for screening and those subsequently unlucky enough to find themselves with a cancer diagnosis.

However, there are some promising signs that change might be on its way for Pink Week. Despite the many frivolous and ‘pinkified’ events which allow people to feel that they can tick breast cancer awareness off their to-do list, there were two events which seemed refreshingly critical. Pink Week held a screening of The Good Breast, a film whose website suggests that its portrayal of breast cancer is both personal, and critical of assumed norms, with a mention being given to ‘debunking the cancer myth of early detection’. A Pink Panel also took place, with one discussion topic being the marketability of breast cancer. Sadly, another was sloppily worded ‘Is the Breast Cancer advocacy world overcrowded?’. I hope not: who the hell is advocating breast cancer?! I hope these events might encourage Pink Week to stop preaching the ‘early detection’ mantra as an absolute truth, and to dilute its overarching feel-good rhetoric. I do not feel able to support Pink Week until it does away with its veneer of pink positivity.


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