Rethink pink

Some breast cancer advocacy groups say shop for the cure. Others say buyer beware.

Tiffany Hoover of the local Susan G. Komen for the Cure affiliate helps raise funds and awareness.

Tiffany Hoover of the local Susan G. Komen for the Cure affiliate helps raise funds and awareness.

Photo By Kat Kerlin

More than 180,000 Americans will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. About 40,000 will die.

“Shop for the cure,” says the largest, best-funded breast-cancer activists’ group, Susan G. Komen for the Cure. With a swipe of the Visa, buy a Kitchenaid Cook for the Cure® edition artisan series tilt-head stand mixer, the “Pink Edition” of Garth Brooks’ The Ultimate Hits album, or just about any other product you can think of, and a portion of the profits goes to Komen to fight breast cancer. For busy consumers, it’s an easy way to help.

Too easy, some say. New York Times Magazine writer Peggy Orenstein told, “It provides people with the illusion of activism in the place of real action.”

“If shopping would cure breast cancer, we would have taken care of it already,” says Pauli Ojea, Community Organizer for Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group in San Francisco. The group runs a “Think Before You Pink” campaign, highlighting “Shop For The Cure” products that contain cancer-causing ingredients. Parabens in cosmetics, for example, were risky enough for the European Union to ban in 2003 but are still used by Estée Lauder and Revlon, which are affiliated with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and the UCLA Women’s Cancer Research Program, respectively.

But proponents of “cause-related marketing,” as it’s called, point out that linking shopping with fundraising is an immensely effective way to raise money.

Tiffany Hoover, executive director of the Northern Nevada Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, says, “There are a lot of businesses that target women, so it makes sense for businesses to want to be near products that are so cherished by women.” Since its inception in 1982, the group has raised more than $1 billion.

Komen operates on a promise to “do whatever it takes” to eradicate breast cancer and funds a number of different approaches. Among its programs are education and “energizing science to find the cures.”

But what exactly are “the cures?” Should we keep shopping for them? And if not, what should we do instead?

Dr. William Murphy, professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology at the University of Nevada, Reno, says a cure will likely come in the form of “a multiple hit.” He’s hopeful a combination of immune therapy, molecular therapy, chemotherapy and earlier detection will spell success. “Molecular targeting offers great promise,” he says, explaining that addressing cancer at the genetic level will allow for more individualized forms of treatment.

That may end up being great news for patients with adequate medical coverage. Meanwhile, existing treatments are already expensive. A biopsy can run up to $5,000, says Hoover. And that’s just for the diagnosis. Much of Komen’s Northern Nevada funding goes toward helping underinsured patients with health-care and living expenses. (About 18 percent of Nevadans have no medical insurance.)

Ojea says Breast Cancer Action sees success in the form of prevention.

“We want to stop cancer before it starts,” she says. “We need to reduce public exposure to things that are toxic.” Her group spends its annual $1.1 million budget encouraging consumers to choose healthful products, urging people to get involved in local campaigns for cleaner water, and offering tips for reducing environmental toxins. That includes everything from lobbying Congress for tighter environmental protections to simply driving less.

If something as simple as driving less seems like drop in the bucket compared to the tidal waves of funding an organization such as Komen can secure for medical research, consider this: When asked what, in her personal opinion, will be the most important element of a future without breast cancer, Komen’s Hoover said, “Knowing that you’re looking at something as enormous [as breast cancer], I think we’ll be looking at prevention.”

So go ahead and shop for the cure.

But while you’re at it, think and act for the cure too.