Pinkwashing: I'm grossed out by the commercialization of breast cancer, but I want to support my recently-diagnosed mother!

Offbeat Home & Life runs these advice questions as an opportunity for our readers to share personal experiences and anecdotes. Readers are responsible for doing their own research before following any advice given here... or anywhere else on the web, for that matter.
Supportive gift, or infantilizing scam?
Supportive gift, or infantilizing scam?
I have always been ethically opposed to the commericialization of breast cancer. I am uneasy about big businesses using breast cancer as a way to promote their own products, increase sales or absolve themselves of a multitude of sins. I am uneasy of many charities with very well paid CEOs who talk about "promoting awareness" but instead promote unscientific, discounted practices like breast self exams and screening mammograms for young women. I feel like the industry is more interested in their business goals than in actually helping women, and they purposefully cause women to fear their own bodies so they can make more profit.

However these opinions are often deemed antisocial — as if I don't care about women with cancer. And so, for the most part, I've kept them to myself and instead read websites like "think before you pink" and "pink ribbon blues" or shared my views with close friends and family only.

But now my mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer and I find more and more well-meaning people asking me about pink ribbon campaigns or breast cancer runs/walks etc, or trying to show their support by buying into these campaigns.

How do I acknowledge their support without encouraging these activities to which I feel ethically opposed and without sounding like I'm preaching or am just a sour bitch?
– Jadeite

Before we open it up to Offbeat Homies to chime in on this meaty question, we'd love to know if you've read Barbara Ehrenreich's book, Bright Sided, or her article for Harper's, "Welcome to Cancerland." She addresses both the commercialization and the infantilization of breast cancer, and you might find some great thoughts in her work.

That said, it sounds like you've already got plenty of thoughts — the issue you're looking for advice on is how to share your concerns about the breast cancer industry, without looking unsupportive of actual breast cancer patients, like your mother. It seems like perhaps you could head people off at the pass, by making proactive suggestions about non-pinkwashed practical ways people could support your mother, like all the great suggestions here.

Tell us, Homies: how can Jadeite acknowledge well-intended support like pink-ribbon teddy bears, while making her concerns about pinkwashing clear?

Join our community!

  1. I would tell friends and family concrete ways they can support your mom, as opposed to the "cause". Bring her dinner, take her out to a movie so she maybe has a couple hours to get her mind off of it, mop her floors, whatever.

    As far as the outer circle of folks, I would suggest to them alternatives to those means of support. Instead of raising money for "awareness", raise money for a local Ronald McDonald house-type-place (or donate non-perishable food for the folks staying there), or ask your local cancer ward what options there are to help out so you can pass that information on. Ask them to donate to a local university who is doing cancer research. Something like that.

    I would focus more on the positive, (y'know what would be great instead of buying pink breast cancer pens?? THIS! That would be so awesome and supportive of you and it would really get something amazing accomplished) instead of lecturing, it engages people and they still get that good feeling like they've contributed in a real way (because they have!)

    38 agree
    • "I would tell friends and family concrete ways they can support your mom"

      THIS x 1000!

      I had a friend go through breast cancer and she was very adamantly and very vocally opposed to anything that sported that "damn pink ribbon" ( as she called it ). But even if she wasn't against pinkwashing, from what I observed, helping her personally was the best any of us could do.

      6 agree
    • I absolutely agree. My mom fought breast cancer on and off for 12 years before passing away in April. The best thing that anyone could have done for her was being there for her. Taking her to her chemo and radiation treatments, visiting with her and my dad, inviting them out to dinner, doing general fun, friend-type things that she normally may have been planning, but wasn't because she was too tired. Also, encouraging people to visit and things, even if she is tired, because she'll be wiped and sleep it off, but it's better and will keep her spirits up much better than not visiting or calling at all. A lot of my mom's friends sort of started to disappear because they didn't want to bother her. In actuality, she craved those visits and spending time with people.

      The pink ribbon things are nice, and we did some of those things at the beginning, but for the love of God, only so many "survivor" t-shirts and sashes can be helpful and just because someone bought her a pink teddy bear once or twice didn't really help the fact that chemo knocks you on your butt for the rest of the day.

      1 agrees
  2. Oh, I hear you! My mother has been through two rounds of breast cancer and unlike me she loves all the pink. I have some feelings about other things (treatment of animals) that has also fallen into this category.

    What does your mom think? That's the most important thing, in my opinion.

    I've done cute pictures of my son in pink – or me in pink – pink nails, pink whatever I have around. It doesn't have to be licensed. I'd prefer it isn't. It's stuff I've put together from the heart. I don't do the walks – but I'm not a walk person. One issue close to my heart is prematurity. Instead of doing the big org walk I make hats for the NICU my son was at – make sense?

    There are ways to show your support without buying in.

    …and no, I haven't read either of the books mentioned above.

    3 agree
  3. I second the hating the pinkification of cancer thing. And the commodification of women's bodies that accompanies breast cancer. Don't get me started on the Save the Tatas/I Heart Boobies/Save Second Base campaigns that reduce whole women to body parts we need to save cause men like them.

    I'd second the advice about material support for your mom – meals, cleaning the house, driving to appointments. Even a kickstarter/crowdsourced funding if she needs money to pay for medication, a care-aide, modifications to her home etc.

    And if folks want to give to the cause, giving to a more local charity that provides direct services to cancer patients and their families – respite care, drivers, wigs.

    Or a charity that lobbies for better public policy for cancer patients – paid leave, paid nursing care etc

    20 agree
    • It's extremely unorthodox, but I really like the idea of a kickstarter/crowd funder for friends and family to help a particular person. Particularly when family are geographically a long way away but can send cash, it's nice be be able to see a total, and milestones, and to feel like your helping. (Sometimes if you just give people money it's a bit odd because you never know where it'll end up or what it was spent on.)

      Of course, if you're close enough, helping with the day-to-day living side of things is really amazing.

  4. I can definitely relate to your feelings, minus the close family member currently in treatment. I would recomend asking for donations that go directly to health centers or research centers. Or, if you are raising money for your mom's treatment, tell them how they can donate directly. giveforward.com is a site that let's you create fundraisers to raise money for health care. It is a legit site, I have a friend who has used it.

    1 agrees
  5. When my mother got breast cancer, we decided to donate directly to her care center and care team at her preferred hospital. Since my mother had great insurance, she would pay it forward and she would buy Neulasta for women who could not afford this expensive part of white blood cell renewal after chemo.

    As a crafter/knitter/crocheter, I made scarves and hats and I found as many resources on skin care and creams without negative chemicals and consequences to chemo sensitive skin – I reached out to LUSH and they worked with me to purchase cheaply and donate some cream to women receiving treatment so they could get relaxing massages and hand rubs that would save their skin. Many companies and hospitals you already use and like will let you know what they need or what you can do!

    My mom never wanted to be a "victim" or "survivor" but she loved it when people went out of their way to help her be healthy and beautiful, so that was our way of making everyone feel like my mom – especially people who didn't have resources or family to help them through cancer like my mom did. We still keep in touch with her care team even after she's been cancer free for 5 years and moved out of state, they are like an extended family we still want to be around and give to!

    Good luck to you and your mom – I agree with your pink commercial aversion, it makes me so upset! We're AWARE of breast cancer, why not do something to get rid of it, huh? 😉

    13 agree
  6. Long term support: Vote for candidates who care about funding for scientific research.

    Immediate support for your mother and your family: everything that's already been mentioned is great

    It sounds like your mother is lucky to have a daughter like you!

    I also read an article by a cancer survivor who hated all the "save the boobies" campaigns, since she is an entire person, not just a pair of tits.

    9 agree
  7. If there is an charity or organization you do believe is making a difference that you'd like to support, I think signal boosting that group is a great way to simultaneously show your support for your loved one while bringing awareness to a group that might not have a large marketing budget.
    I've seen an increasing trend of people who do just what The Brand has done; they're marketing. They make t-shirts, websites and stickers with their loved one's name and a breast cancer research charity/group they believe in.

    2 agree
    • That's a good idea. A relative of mine got diagnosed with breast cancer at 25, and she had support from a great charity that provided gift packs to people newly diagnosed, with lots of really helpful information and things. If there was something similar where OP lives, she could direct people to that, rather than the big pink orgs.

  8. I am so sorry to hear that your mother is going through this. I'm sure all of us are hoping for her speedy recovery.

    My grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer about five years ago, and she feels the same way (Well, same but different). She doesn't like all the pink blah-de-blah, and I don't really approve of the way some of the big groups run things. However, in my hometown there's a charity that has a walk every single year to raise money for wigs and prosthetics for local survivors, and my mother and I participate in that in her honor.

    I'd second the advice that people have been giving about making sure she has food and chauffeurs and a good support team. However, if you do have insistent people (which you might), you may want to look into setting up a charity of your own so your mother's friends can do bake sales or raffles and your mother gets the money for treatment costs or whatever she needs due to being sick, or giving it to others who are suffering from cancer if she's fortunate enough to not need any money. You do recognize that they mean well, and they're only asking about fundraising because they love your mother so much. You don't mention how your mother feels about the pinkwashing (or accepting charity from others), so maybe being able to pull something positive out of this very difficult time may help her.

    1 agrees
  9. I just finished my last round of chemo for breast cancer & will be starting radiation in a few weeks, so I really sympathize with the poster & her mom. But I may be less offended by all the pink – yes, pink-washing is totally real & sucks (there's a great documentary on cable/Netflix called "Pink Ribbon Inc." that goes in to huge detail about corporate involvement in breast cancer fundraising & conflict of interest). But there *are* some excellent charities, big & small, & things like 'running for the cure' can raise money & awareness, plus be very supportive for some survivors & their families. After I was first diagnosed, an acquaintance gave me her t-shirt from one such race, saying it was imbued with all the love, hugs, & good wishes from hundreds of ppl she met along the route. I was really touched. I've also been given a few pink ribbon tchotchkes that I wouldn't have bought for myself, but I know the giver meant well & wants the best for me, so I don't mind (luckily no teddy bears, lol).

    As others have said, you can encourage ppl who want to support your mom to first give direct assistance that she will need (& that will be lots! I couldn't get thru this without the help of my family & friends). Then suggest worthy charities that you & your mom believe in. And if someone wants to run a race in her name, let them, it doesn't hurt & hopefully it'll spread more good will.

    4 agree
  10. I am another who is against the pink-washing and general 'commercialization' of cancer charities (are 'commercialization' and 'charities' the right words). I had the treatment to remove a skin cancer a few years ago and often confuse people when I say that I am not really for any of the big breat cancer awareness walks in my area despite being someone who used to have cancer.

    I agree with Gracie about asking your mum what she thinks about all of this. And how she can be supported. Whatever she suggests would be a great thing to tell people who want to help and automatically think pink for helping out and being supportive.
    Also look at local charities and groups that can provide direct to support to those affected by cancer. The charities and groups that drive people to appointments, provide support groups or classes that boost confidence. I always suggest the charity 'Maggies', a UK charity that provides a range of groups, classes and a safe place to chat which helped and still helps me. I know that the money goes directly to running the groups and they have really helped me through some tough and difficult days.

    1 agrees
  11. Follow your Mom's lead. My mom is a breast cancer survivor and does buy pink-ribbon stuff after examining just how much of the profits go towards breast cancer charities, and which ones they are. She's bought things like umbrellas, t-shirts, and scarves. She has met many other women who are battling, survived, or had a family member with breast cancer through wearing these things, which is why she likes them.

    I'm curious about why self-exams are on the list of unscientific, discounted practices? My mother found her own tumor and was told by her doctor that there is a small percentage of tumors that mammograms cannot detect, so her self-exams saved her life.

    9 agree
  12. If friends/family want to make a donation somewhere, tell them to donate directly to the cancer center providing your mother's care. When making their donation, they need to include a letter specifying how the money is to be spent (for research, for patient assistance, whatever). They should also include the name of the specific department & the name of her physician/oncologist. By doing that, the receiving institution must abide by the donor's wishes & put it in a special spending account for just such a thing. Otherwise the money will go into a "general fund" & they can spend it on things like paying to decorate a doctor's office, paying for food for parties, etc. instead of going directly to patient care & aid, &/or that specific doctor's research.

    1 agrees
    • I understand what you're saying, but would like to provide another perspective. Just like anyone else, doctors and other hospital workers have mental health needs. Parties and decorations aren't there because people feel like throwing money away – they're used to boost moral amongst hospital employees. This can make them better workers.

      17 agree
  13. I don't really have anything to add, but wanted to thank you & Offbeat Home for bringing this up. I have all the same feelings about the pink washing, and a mom who is just celebrating 10 years of being breast cancer free. Most of this heavy, heavy commercialization has popped up since she was diagnosed and treated, so it's been a growing dilemma for me for years. Thankfully, my mom has some of the same feelings about it (though not generally as strong), but I always feel like she's 'allowed' to make those judgments, where I am somehow guilty when I roll my eyes every October as everyone starts talking about how great it is that the NFL watches out for 'the tatas' by producing a whole line of commericalized bright pink products, while systematically ignoring a whole host of other women's issues (like, hi, domestic violence, rape, absentee fatherhood/single motherhood at epidemic proportions??).

    Anyway. Off my soapbox, but thanks for bringing this up. While it's mostly an internal struggle for me (as no one is asking how many pink teddy bears they can buy to support my mom anymore), it's nice to know that someone else goes through this, too.

    Big hugs to both your mom and you, and sending positive vibes for a full and smooth recovery.

    4 agree
  14. My mom got diagnosed two years ago. At first, she herself was gung-ho about the pink ribbon thing, so I kept my mouth shut about what I did and didn't know about where that money actually goes. Because who the hell was I to say anything about anything if it made her feel better? And then, she found out the hard way how useless most of those charities are because she and my dad were in dire financial straits and none of those groups who are so happy to vacuum up those feel good donations would do a damn thing for them. So they started googling, and figured it out themselves. It was pretty amazing, standing in a store with my bald mom on the eve of her mastectomy, listening to her tell the woman behind the counter (who had attempted to sell me some pink nonsense while I was checking out) "You know, only .01% of a penny of the price of that product actually goes to charity!"

    Sometimes people are downright shocked to find out how little money from those pink products actually goes to cancer research or helping people pay for treatment. They honestly feel like they're doing something good by buying them. (Which is why businesses do it in the first place) And depending on the situation, I think you have to weigh the cost of educating them (and possibly doing them some good) against the possibility of hurting the feelings of someone who was legitimately trying to be kind and helpful. If it's your friend group…go ahead and let them know the ugly truth. If it's the sweet little old lady across the street showing off her official Susan G. Komen water bottle or whatever, it might be best to just let it go. And if the sea of pink is something that your mom feels good about….maybe best to let it go, too. It's scary to have cancer, and sometimes I think all that visual support (even if it's empty as far as you and I are concerned) makes someone with breast cancer feel less alone. Like, oh, it's going to be OK, look at all these organizations that are trying to help people like me! And even if you and I know that's bullshit…well, who knows what the right thing to say is there? Even after mom found out the truth about the majority of BC charities, she still wore the pink ribbon stuff that people gifted her and thanked people for them…if nothing else, wearing something with a pink ribbon on it saved her from having to answer as many variations of "What happened to all your hair?"

    As far as people asking what they can do to personally help your mom…I think others have good suggestions for things like helping out around the house or bringing food or donating to her specific treatment center. Hats and scarves are another good thing, as are warm blankets to cover up with during chemo. And some nice yummy hand cream for when the chemo starts to dry out her hands and feet. (A bunch of us went in together and got a friend undergoing BC treatment Le Mer hand cream, back when that was the "it" luxe item of the month.) Also, an iPod or a Kindle is great for sitting through chemo, and friends that want to contribute can get mom an itunes or amazon gift card. These are probably all things that treatment centers would like to have, as well. I know that there was a "hat room" at my mom's treatment center, where patients could go pick out a couple of cool hats or scarves to wear once they started chemo. A kickstarter campaign is something else that I've seen done when someone is starting cancer treatment; that shit is expensive, people hear about it and want to help with donations, it's nice to have one specific place that you can direct them to that will 100% help out your family with the cost. If, of course, you find it necessary and your family is OK with it.

    I know that having a parent diagnosed with cancer fills you with a lot of conflicting emotions, and that it's difficult sometimes to know what to say and how to say it. I'm sending you good wishes and positive energy for your mom's speedy recovery.

    6 agree
  15. Jadeite can sincerely acknowledge the support her mom receives while not compromising her own integrity by continuing to spread the truth of things and encouraging others to think critically about breast cancer and screening. Sadly, the pinkwashing scheme is only the tip of the iceberg of scam. If women knew that the medical industry runs the mammogram racket (see the e-book "The Mammogram Myth" by Rolf Hefti) the whole medical system would rightly lose influence and stability.

    1 agrees
  16. I think that many of the other posters have given good suggestions. I think that your question was at least partially asking about how _you_ feel _you_ can deflect/avoid etc giving to the "pink ribbon" charities at this point. I think that when people ask you, they are trying to be supportive, and that's what you need to remember. You also need to remember that you are perfectly in your rights to decline, just as before. A simple "I'm doing all I can right now" is honest and direct. You can also always add "thank you so much for your support of breast cancer patients" or something to that effect. That way it's not about you or your mom, but rather acknowledging their efforts.

    When my husband was diagnosed with cancer, I just didn't have it in me to do any of the cancer awareness stuff. And there might have been one tiny time I went off on a wild facebook rant about those stupid-ass "breast cancer awareness" things on facebook (the what color your bra is nonsense). And let me tell you, if I see one more of those annoying "all a cancer patient wants is to be cancer free" ridiculous posts, someone else is going to get it. My husband has been a cancer patient on and off for 1.5 years, and he's wanted plenty of other things in that time.

    There might come a time when you feel as though you want to do something for "the cause" instead of for your mom. If you are so inspired, that's great. We've raised money for the hospital where my husband has been treated and I am running a head-shaving fundraiser for Dana-Farber this spring. But if "the cause" never speaks to you, that's ok too. You do what you need to do to take care of your mom, yourself, your life. The one thing that's true about cancer is that it changes everyone it touches, but it doesn't change everyone the same way.

    3 agree
  17. How about Breast Cancer Action? They could be a great alternative to Komen in terms of donating money. They even have a campaign called "Think Before You Pink" and don't accept any money from pharmacies or companies profiting from pinkwashing.

    1 agrees
  18. Just thought I'd drop a link to photographer David Jay's series "The Scar Project: Cancer is not a pink ribbon." For everyone who's as appalled by pink washing as I am, I hope you find this as powerful and moving as I do. http://www.thescarproject.org

    2 agree
  19. I haven't had to deal with cancer with a close one yet. Most people I am close with had cancer before I met them. But we have a unique system at my work. It is a health food store, selling juices, smoothies, and burritos with mostly organic and non-gmo foods. Since we in a small town, some customers who have cancer have a gift card that is left in the drawer. Anyone is free to donate money on the card. So when our customer comes back, they are free to get shots of wheatgrass, or food that isn't from the hospital. If you have a local store that might be your Mom's favorite restaurant, I would recommend that.

    1 agrees
  20. My Grandmother is ill with breastcancer as well and she is going to die in – if we are lucky – latest a few months since the cancer has spread. Enough time to say goodbye, but of course an extreme-situation for all of us.
    I am aware of the bad sides of this industry as well. And I don't think that giving these organisations money is going to help much.
    What you really CAN DO is be there for your mother and talk. Talk to her, talk to others about her struggle, talk to your friends, your sister, your daughter, your colleagues.

    Tell them to let a doctor do regular checks, tell them to check on them selves, tell them to tell others. Breast cancer must not remain a taboo theme, it must be a danger present to all women (and men). I wish somebody would have told my grandmother earlier to stop smoking, to eat healthier, to go to the doctor for preventional screenings. I do not know for certain, but maybe that would have saved her and us this horrible pain.

    Prevention is the only real thing that we can do against this horrible desease. And that means Talking and raising awareness yourself.

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No-drama comment policy

Part of what makes the Offbeat Empire different is our commitment to civil, constructive commenting. Make sure you're familiar with our no-drama comment policy.