Too Much Pink? or, What Should I Be Doing?

My fellow SiBling Dr. Charles has written a post about women and breast cancer that is a gift. Skip the pink ribbons and read what he's written. That dude can tell a story.

Dr. Charles quotes Audre Lorde from The Cancer Journals on women with breast cancer as warriors; the patient he's examining has read Lorde and has foregone reconstructive surgery or a prosthesis after her mastectomy. The post ends this way:

Regardless of whether a woman replaces that which has been taken from her or decides to go without, she is a noble warrior, tragically drafted into a bitter war. A good war, worth the fight, worth the blood and tears, the hair and skin. She deserves a hero's welcome home.

David McCabe comments on Dr. Charles's post as follows:

I do not say this to be insensitive or to make trivial what is weighty. I am only asking for an explanation of something which I do not understand. Why is it that breast cancer, more than other cancers and more than other life-threatening diseases, is viewed as a war? When my sister had life-threatening colitis, and her colon was removed, no one called her a warrior. When a friend of mine had testicular cancer, no one called him a hero. Another friend of mine is dieing of lung cancer, and everyone just calls him a poor boy. Why is this? Thanks.

Other commenters agreed with McCabe, and some protested the use of the word warrior for patients at all, claiming it puts too much of an onus on them to be responsible for recovery from a disease that may be incurable.

Audre Lorde's essay "The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action" (found in Sister Outsider, but originally published in The Cancer Journals) changed my world when I first encountered it in my twenties and it remains one of the most profound influences in my life. I think commenters who object to the "warrior" imagery Lorde uses might want to familiarize themselves a bit more with her works, to understand the larger context in which she uses this word. It is not just about fighting breast cancer - although it is that, too. Lorde tells us:

Within those weeks of acute fear [after the initial cancer diagnosis] came the knowledge - within the war we are all waging with the forces of death, subtle and otherwise, conscious or not - I am not only a casualty, I am a warrior.

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself - a Black woman warrior poet doing my work - come to ask you, are you doing yours?

Lorde acknowledges that we are all (or can be) warriors, cancer survivors or not, for we are all in battle against the forces of death, "subtle and otherwise, conscious or not". Ask a mother in Philadelphia about the battle against the forces of death; she'll have something to tell you about the over 300 homicides to date in the city this year, many of them very young Black boys.

Lorde also challenges us to find "the words we do not yet have", and she asks us if we are doing our work. Karen Heller of the Philadelphia Inquirer found some words to say about the pinkification of breast cancer:

The can is emphatically pink, as are so many things this month. It's Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup festooned with a pink ribbon. Or is it Chick Noodle Soup? The can looks like an Andy Warhol on an estrogen bender. We're supposed to buy a can of this so some of the proceeds go to "Breast Cancer Awareness," so that patients become healthier. But can buying soup with 890 milligrams of sodium be healthy?...Breast cancer, or rather the "awareness" of it, notice the linguistic dodging of pain and radiation, has been pinked and feminized to the point where it's the Barbie of serious illness...What other charity believes shopping is the best way to make a contribution? Isn't it insulting, demeaning, and more than a bit sexist to make a disease that overwhelmingly affects women focus on accessorizing for a cure? Imagine diabetes jewelry or lung-cancer umbrellas. Who expects a gift when donating to a charity providing domestic or international relief? The desire is to get as much money as possible to the people who need it most, not to score a pretty prize for doing good... I'm not buying that shopping builds "awareness." And I'm not buying the stuff they're selling. It's a bunch of hooey, a load of sodium, too much pink, and self-aggrandizement for corporations, which could do plenty more without going all public about their goodness and 31/2 cents on the can for charity (but not in the home region).**

It is indeed frustrating that something like heart disease, which is responsible for more women's deaths than breast cancer, doesn't get as much attention. And that women still aren't being properly diagnosed in emergency rooms, or that they don't recognize their own symptoms of potential heart attack, because their symptoms aren't always like those we are familiar with - the symptoms men have.

But are these good reasons to complain that breast cancer is getting the attention it is? It seems to me that breast cancer is a very special case for women. It's the only cancer I know of where, if you survive it, you might find yourself expected to buy a prosthetic or undergo further surgery so that you can look like a "normal woman" to the world. The world does not like to see one-breasted or no-breasted women. On the site for The Cancer Journals, the description quotes Lorde as saying

[the book] gives voice to her "feelings and thoughts about the travesty of prosthesis, the pain of amputation, the function of cancer in a profit economy, confrontation with mortality, the strength of women loving, and the power and rewards of self-conscious living."

What do you need to say? Are you doing your work? I think carping about the attention breast cancer gets, even in a polite manner, is not useful work. I think it is useful, as Heller did, to critique the commoditization of breast cancer. It is useful to work to raise awareness of the dangers that heart disease poses for women. It is not useful to whine about breast cancer and complain that it's really not that bad, or that prevalent, to deserve so much attention. When I hear men lining up to complain about the Viagratization of network advertising, or the lack of an adequate male contraceptive, we can talk about which health issues are getting more or less attention than they warrant.

To be fair, I do not think David McCabe was actually carping - he was really asking for an explanation. I am referring to other people who carp. David McCabe needed an explanation because Audre Lorde's original use of the word warrior has been stripped of its broader context and reduced to mean only fighting breast cancer. People do not understand it to refer to a larger societal struggle, to the issues of women loving women, to issues of race, to the central notion of transforming silence into language and action.

So if you don't like all the fuss about breast cancer, fine. Go find some other disease or other charity, and volunteer time/money/talent for it. Save your breath on the grumbling.

Consider, for your work, picking an issue other than your own. I have never had cancer, and I am not a lesbian. However, on the lower left side of this page you will find a link for the Mautner Project, the National Lesbian Health Organization.

The goal of this website is to serve lesbians and women who partner with women by giving information, as well as providing assistance in finding local and national health services. If you, or someone you love, has recently been diagnosed with cancer and you are seeking support services and/or health resources, we encourage you to contact the Mautner Project at: 202.332.5536.

Pass the word.

**Heller tells us "Proceeds [from the Campbell's soup sales] collected are solely through Kroger-owned supermarkets on 7 million cans of pink tomato and chicken noodle soup, 31/2 cents per can, with a cap of $250,000, going to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and local charities in Kroger markets. Campbell's has headquarters in Camden [NJ], but there are no Kroger stores around here [the Philadelphia-Camden metro region]."

More like this

It must be tough running a charity. You've got a cause you care deeply about, and you're constantly juggling the game of having to spend money (in administration, advertising, staff) to raise money (for the cause!), and worse, of sometimes having to compromise to achieve your goals — you sometimes…
The New York Times has been periodically running a series about the "40 years' war" on cancer, with most articles by Gina Kolata. I've touched on this series before, liking some parts of it, while others not so much. In particular, I criticized an article one article that I thought to be so…
Here we are, a third of the way into Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I haven't yet written a piece about breast cancer. Given that it's my primary surgical specialty, perhaps some readers were wondering why not. Truth be told, I've always been a bit ambivalent about Breast Cancer Awareness month…
One of Oprah's favorite resources for women's health is Dr. Christiane Northrup, a gynecologist with bizarre ideas about health and disease. On the air, she has disputed the connection between HPV and cervical cancer, an uncontroversial scientific fact. Her un-belief in an important scientific…

Should people who feel that something's going on, but lack the skills and habit of research enjoy by you and Heller, refrain from whining?

What about those whiners in the 60s and 70s, lacking data or even vocabulary to articulate their doubts, learned to become feminists and kick-ass attack engineers?

Something completely different :

I have hypertension, so I never enter the rows where Campbell's soup lives in my supermarket, and I have no idea what is printed on their cans.

Is Heller saying, there are words, perhaps printed on cans in her local supermarket, perhaps printed elsewhere, which claim 3-1/2 cents will be donated to the Komen or other Foundation, when in fact it is true only for other cans elsewhere, ie not true?

Yes, that is pretty much what Heller is saying. You can buy a pinked up can of Campbell's soup in a supermarket in the Philadelphia region but there will be no 3.5 cent donation to the Komen foundation for your effort. Only if you buy it in a Kroger store. Of which we have none. And only if they have not already reached the cap.

Regarding your other comment:

Should people who feel that something's going on, but lack the skills and habit of research enjoy by you and Heller, refrain from whining? What about those whiners in the 60s and 70s, lacking data or even vocabulary to articulate their doubts, learned to become feminists and kick-ass attack engineers?

Everybody should refrain from whining, except in private with good friends who are willing to listen to you whine. Protesting injustice is a different matter. Fomenting revolution is a different matter. Taking positive action to change your life or the lives of others is a different matter. If you are referring to consciousness-raising groups in the 60s and 70s, I wouldn't call those women whiners. If by kick-ass attack engineers you mean Zuska (and of course I am one), Zuska is most assuredly not a whiner (except now and then about her migraines).

Whiners are people who, when someone points out an injustice or takes action to deal with a problem, will be found saying, "But is this really an important issue? I don't think this is a problem because I personally don't believe it is a problem and because I am not part of the problem. I think there are other problems that are much more important that you should deal with first. You can't solve this problem until you solve these twelve other problems first. Perhaps it is a problem, but not in the manner than you have described. The real problem lies elsewhere. It's a problem, but it's not as bad as you make it out to be. If it were a problem, we would be observing these other types of issues. Other people have problems, too, you know. I had a problem once and I never complained about it, I just worked harder."

Or add your favorite line to the list above.

Whiners do not take positive action. They impede positive action.

Nice dance. 8-P~~~

I am old enough to give personal eye-witness testimony. The fledgeling feminists.. those I observed, probably not all.. were called whiners by most men and many women. Until they formed consciousness-raising groups, they had little credible evidence and their complaints detracted from real progressive work.

Of course, we know very well whose "credence" and whose "progress". CR was as much about redefining "credible" and "progressive" as about comparing notes and empowerment.

Like "credible", "whine" says more about the hearer than about the speaker. It ressembles more an ad hominem attack than a description.

On this continent, one is well-advised to be suspicious, to whine, about such a well-oiled publicity machine. Not about concern itself for breast-cancer, but about what might be attached to that concern by the machine. For example..

I am sure that there is no false-advertising, that Campbell's official public statements are very clear and accurate about what is really offered. However, reporters are so careless, and bullet-points are necessarily truncated, and nobody hears the long-winded limits and qualifications anyway. Still, one wonders. One feels churlish, if not testosterone-oozing sexist, given this excellent cause, to express doubts or reservations.

It is amazing to me how many group-issues cry out for CR as part of the resolution, and how much hostility one can arouse by suggesting it, redoubled if one names it.

thanks for carrying the discussion across the blogs, and i'm glad you share the same appreciation of lourde's writing.
"So if you don't like all the fuss about breast cancer, fine. Go find some other disease or other charity, and volunteer time/money/talent for it. Save your breath on the grumbling."
well said :)

A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with the Cancer gene that causes cancer many times in your life time (provided you keep surviving it). In order to lower the percentage chance of her getting Cancer at 30 years old she had to remove her breasts and ovaries. She agreed to choose the agressive path to survive. She has been dealing with a lot of physical and mental trauma after these surgeries. I know she is a Warrior. I am proud that she chose a path for herself and is forging ahead despite endless challenges.

Other friends of mine have also had to deal with Cancer. I consider them Warriors as well. One pulled herself back from deaths door to continue to show us how to LIVE.