In 1990, after years of encountering government agencies and organizations that provided inadequate and superficial information rather than scientific evidence about breast cancer, Elenore Pred grew angry. She shared her anger with other women who had metastatic breast cancer. Together they formed Breast Cancer Action. Since Elenore Pred’s death in October 1991, BCAction has continued the work she began. Today, the national, grassroots organization serves as the self-described watchdog of the breast cancer movement and is led by a volunteer Board of Directors and comprised of women with breast cancer and their supporters. Their mission goes beyond the notion of “the cure” and tackles the most pressing issues that must be addressed in order to make the changes necessary to end the breast cancer epidemic.
Women You Should Know had an opportunity to speak with Caitlin Carmody, BCAction’s Membership Coordinator, so we could learn more about the organization. She shared lots of in-depth information, details on the work they have accomplished and news about some of BCAction’s latest campaigns.
WYSK: What does Breast Cancer Action do differently than other breast cancer organizations?
BCA: Breast Cancer Action was the first – and remains one of the few – national breast cancer organizations to not take money from any company that profits from or contributes to cancer. This allows us to give women unbiased, accurate information about breast cancer and to put women’s health first, always. We work to end the breast cancer epidemic while supporting women who have already been diagnosed in a variety of ways: we advocate for more effective, more affordable, and less toxic breast cancer treatments by shifting the balance of power in the Food and Drug Administration’s drug approval process away from the pharmaceutical industry and toward patients; we work to decrease involuntary environmental exposures that put people at risk for breast cancer; we work to create understanding that it is not just genes, but social injustices – political, economic, and racial inequities – that lead to disparities in breast cancer outcomes; we provide unbiased information about breast cancer to anyone who requests it via phone, email, and in-person.
WYSK: Why does BCAction believe it’s important to change the conversation surrounding breast cancer?
BCA: Much of the information women get about breast cancer focuses on their individual actions – get a mammogram, don’t smoke, eat healthy, exercise, reduce alcohol consumption, maintain a healthy weight. But one of the ugly truths of breast cancer is that more than half of all breast cancers have no known cause and scientific evidence suggests that many cases are linked to exposure to environmental toxins. This means that, even if a woman follows the call to exercise, never smoke, reduce alcohol consumption, and control her weight, she may still get breast cancer. Today, the greatest risk for breast cancer is being a woman. In fact, a woman today has a 1 in 8 lifetime risk of getting breast cancer, up from 1 in 20 in the 1960s and 1 in 14 in the 1980s. We must shift the conversation away from simply early detection to a fuller understanding of why so many of us are getting breast cancer in the first place, and why we are getting it at younger ages. In addition to better treatment options and overall health equity for people living with breast cancer, we must identify and eliminate the root causes of this epidemic, which lead to so many of us being affected. We need to stop cancer before it starts.
WYSK: What is the one thing that you want women, people, to know about breast cancer?
BCA: We need less awareness and more action. We need action that changes the ways the breast cancer industry does business; action that does not assume synthetic chemicals are innocent until proven guilty (of the 80,000 synthetic chemicals on the market, most of which have never been assessed for their impact on our health); action that addresses the fact that too many women lack health insurance; action that turns the tide on the inequities that mean African American women are more likely to die from breast cancer than their white counterparts; action that produces more effective, less toxic treatments, including for metastatic disease (metastatic breast cancer is what kills women, yet only 2% of research funding goes to treating metastatic disease.) Despite all the money raised in the name of breast cancer today, too many women are diagnosed with breast cancer, too many women are dying, and we still don’t know enough about why. We believe that by joining together to create system-wide changes that benefit the health of all women, we can end the epidemic.
WYSK: In 2002, Breast Cancer Action launched the Think Before You Pink project. Tell us about it?
BCA: We launched our Think Before You Pink campaign in response to members’ concerns about the overwhelming number of pink ribbon products and promotions on the market. The campaign calls for more transparency and accountability by companies that take part in breast cancer fundraising and encourages consumers to ask critical questions about pink ribbon promotions. Our goals for these campaigns include: changing corporate behavior to demand accountability from specific companies that purport to care about breast cancer; educating consumers about “pinkwashing” and spreading the word about our Critical Questions for Conscious Consumers: Think Before You Buy Pink; raising awareness so that “pinkwashing” corporations aren’t able to exploit good intentions by positioning themselves as leaders in the struggle against breast cancer while engaging in practices that may be contributing to rising rates of the disease.
WYSK: What is a pinkwasher?
BCA: A “pinkwasher” is a company or organization that claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, but at the same time produces, manufactures and/or sells products that are linked to the disease. It is these entities, which fail to follow through on their self-proclaimed commitment to the cause of breast cancer that we target through our Think Before You Pink campaigns.
WYSK: Why is pinkwashing detrimental to the breast cancer movement?
BCA: We believe women’s health should always come first. Corporations realize large profits (and goodwill) by linking their products to a pink ribbon. However, many of these companies, including cosmetic and car companies, are themselves contributing to breast cancer. Breast Cancer Action believes that instead of profiting from breast cancer, these corporations, if they want to make a difference, should be taking action to prevent women from getting sick in the first place.
WYSK: What critical questions do you urge consumers to ask before they buy pink?
BCA: Just click here to view BCAction’s Critical Questions for Conscious Consumers: Think Before You Buy Pink
WYSK: Instead of buying pink things, what do you recommend people do to support the fight against breast cancer?
BCA: We encourage people to donate directly to organizations they believe are doing important work to support women living with breast cancer, and to put a stop to the epidemic. We also encourage people to advocate for regulatory reform and system-wide changes. We need policies that protect all of us, regardless of our lifestyles or our ability to make the “right” purchases. No matter how much organic we eat, how quick we are to rid our kitchens of plastic, how much effort we put into safe cosmetics, we can’t just opt out of the toxins that come to us through our daily environment. With more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals in use, this is not something we can change by individual choice; this is a matter of regulatory change. People can take action by visiting the Action Center of our website.
WYSK: In the last 9 years, since Think Before You Pink launched, what achievements have been made as a direct result of this campaign?
BCA: Through this campaign, we’ve educated thousands of people about pink ribbon cause marketing and the questions they should ask to ensure their pink ribbon purchase will have the impact they hope. Our “Critical Questions” have gone mainstream; many cause marketing beneficiaries have adopted BCAction’s questions, which helps put women’s health first when it comes to pink ribbon marketing. Some specific victories that have benefit everyone’s health:
– Through our Think Before You Pink campaign, we shined a spotlight on pinkwashing cosmetics and initiated the California Safe Cosmetics Bill that was passed in 2005, which identified parabens and phthalates as a source of concern.
– In 2008, we focused on Yoplait’s pink-lidded yogurt, sold to raise money for breast cancer, but made with dairy stimulated with the hormone rBGH. rBGH is an artificial hormone given to cows to make them produce more milk and it has been linked to breast cancer and other health problems. Our members sent thousands of letters to General Mills. As a result of our and other organizations’ advocacy, 2/3 of the dairy market is now rbGH-free.
WYSK: You just launched a new campaign – Raise A Stink! – what is it about and what is the goal?
BCA: This year, the giant of the breast cancer world, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, released their commissioned perfume, Promise Me, which they are selling to raise awareness of and money for breast cancer. There are a number of chemicals in Promise Me that are not listed on the label – in fact only by independent testing of Promise Me did BCAction discover that Promise Me contains chemicals that are: (a) regulated as toxic and hazardous, (b) have not been evaluated for safety with humans, or (c) which have demonstrated negative health effects. See our fact sheet and video.
Two chemicals of primary concern are Galoxolide and Toluene. Galaxolide is a synthetic musk that works as a hormone disruptor and is found in blood, breast milk, and even in newborns. Toluene is a potent neurotoxicant linked to a variety of demonstrated negative health effects. Toluene is banned by the International Fragrance Association, yet it appears in Promise Me perfume. We have responded with this year’s Think Before You Pink campaign, Raise a Stink!.
Raise a Stink! urges Komen to recall Promise Me perfume; to sign a Pledge to Prevent Pinkwashing; and to adopt the highest standards when it comes to the products and partnerships they promote.
BCAction asks the public to join us in urging Komen to put patients before profits by taking every precaution when it comes to the ingredients in the pink ribbon products they promote. Our goal is 10,000 letters by the end of October. You can help us urge Komen to use their influence to make sure that companies that are selling pink-ribbon products are taking active steps to ensure their products do not contribute to an increased risk of breast cancer.