Today we went on one of our favourite walks. To the shining shore. The river Dee estuary. The mud is full of wading birds. We stop at our favourite stopping place overlooking the estuary. It is completely still. So still we can hear the noise the beaks of the shelducks make as they waddle along in the mud hoovering it up, some sort of feeding habit. We have our lunch. I’ve brought Gayle Sulik’s book with me, Pink Ribbon Blues. I have the last 40 pages to read. I want to finish it and reflect.
Gayle Sulik makes brilliant observations in her book about the whole breast cancer culture. And it’s about time we started to take notice, because breast cancer statistics are increasing, not decreasing. And we’re spending more money on treating women, but – a woman diagnosed with invasive breast cancer gets more treatment now, but still ‘has about the same chances of dying from the disease as she did 50 years ago.’ (p159) That’s not progress.
This is a brilliant book that looks at the real issues around breast cancer. Gayle Sulik skilfully analyses the pinkwashing of corporations who manufacture products that may in fact be contributing to breast cancer, who are manipulating the goodwill of millions of US citizens who believe that by supporting pink products they are helping to find that all elusive ‘cure’ for breast cancer. But that prevention isn’t on any agendas.
She is not afraid to look at the difficult subjects, like the questions about the effectiveness of mammography, the possibility of over-treatment due to increased screening, the pharmaceutical industry that profits from the drugs we use to treat breast cancer: ‘The industry that benefits from the increased use of mammography and pharmaceuticals is at the core of what has become pink ribbon culture.’ (p210)
Gayle Sulik also looks at the whole cheerful culture of breast cancer. The upbeat message of breast cancer survivorship, and the ‘normalization’ of the disease, ‘specifically the suppression of any feelings that might destabilize upbeat social interaction.’ (p237) This culture that promotes so much positive demands on women, and yet suggests ‘that the women who do not survive are not optimistic enough.’ (p243) I have often reflected that you wouldn’t think that breast cancer is a disease about death. It’s presented to us as so palatable and acceptable. It’s time to challenge that.
In chapter eight Gayle Sulik refers to the ‘terrible stories’ of breast cancer. The women, like Audre Lorde, who wrote about their experiences with anger and honesty. That the cheerfulness as the way to survive ‘succeeds in blaming the diagnosed for getting cancer in the first place, limiting women’s personal expression to sanctioned cultural scripts.’ (p342) That breast cancer patients only have a few words to express our experiences, and that we are forced into the role of ‘ triumphant survivor’. And that society looks away ‘from what might be causing breast cancer, the environmental factors, ignoring the profit in medical system’, with no ‘real investment’ in prevention. (p342)
In the final chapter Gayle Sulik talks about the stereotypes that are reinforced for women: breasts and pink. And that pink ribbon products trivialise and ignore the reality of breast cancer whilst ‘degrading women and putting them in their place.’ (p372)
I was diagnosed with breast cancer, in the UK, in 2007. I have always found the pink ribbon culture to be too cheerful for my liking. And no, I’m not a survivor, I’m not better or different than the thousands of women who die of breast cancer, treated and just lucky – so far. Let’s hope this book can finally start to change the tide of pink so that we start to see a future that seriously looks at prevention, the environmental links to breast cancer, and is really free of the fear of breast cancer for all women.
This book could change the world. If you have any interest in us really making a difference to breast cancer statistics, then please – read this book.