Monday, October 5, 2009

Not Thinking Pink: Sentimentalizing Illness

Pink Salem Gazette This week’s Salem Gazette was printed on pink paper to promote breast cancer research.  In October, everything is pink, as corporations sprout pink ribbons, pledging money to breast cancer research.

Not everyone likes pink.  Quoting from “Sick of Pink”:

When Kim Zielinski was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 at the age of 33, well-meaning friends inundated her with products bearing a little pink ribbon. Each product’s maker promised a cut of the sales price to a breast cancer charity, and these friends felt they were supporting the cause and, by association, Zielinski. A petite brunette who’s now 35, she was enormously grateful for the millions of dollars that these pink-ribbon products direct each year to charities that fund breast cancer research and education.

But it wasn’t long before she got a little sick of the pink. “I felt kind of hateful,” says the insurance company sales manager who lives in Charlestown. “I was like, ‘What makes you think I like pink now?’

“I think that the pink ribbon, as a symbol, tends to pretty up what is a pretty crappy disease. But a pink ribbon is easier to look at than the disease itself.”

The marketing of breast cancer disturbs me.  We’ve been marketing illness and disabilities for a long time.  The cycle usually goes something like the following.

  1. Someone has a disease, a disability or an illness.
  2. They’re at least cute, photogenic, or articulate.  They’re probably Caucasian, too.
  3. A disease-of-the-week movie gets made (remember those?), or an article in People, or the morning entertainment shows do a feature.
  4. A charity is formed to get money for research or “awareness”, the latter is often just a celebrity showing up at a fundraiser or on TV.
  5. Rinse and repeat

There have been many such cycles for many illnesses and conditions, some more “successful” than others.  The Susan G. Komen For the Cure Foundation is amongst the most visible for any disease.

The foundation’s website doesn’t really tell us much about Ms. Komen:

Susan G. Komen fought breast cancer with her heart, body and soul. Throughout her diagnosis, treatments, and endless days in the hospital, she spent her time thinking of ways to make life better for other women battling breast cancer instead of worrying about her own situation. That concern for others continued even as Susan neared the end of her fight. Moved by Susan’s compassion for others and committed to making a difference, Nancy G. Brinker promised her sister that she would do everything in her power to end breast cancer forever.

So, Ms. Komen got breast cancer and died.  So do many other women (and sometimes men).  Did Komen die so she could have a foundation, to be elevated to Heaven, to have a cruel disease and a hard ending?  Did she die to be sentimentalized?

Here’s a conversation in the near future that I immediately imagined:

A patient waits, alone, in her doctor’s office.  She’s terrified.  She got The Call or The Letter and is waiting for news.  News she doesn’t want to hear but can’t avoid.

The doctor enters.  “Good morning, Ms. Jones.  I’m sorry to tell you that your breast biopsy tested positive.”

“I have cancer?”

“Yes, but it’s not bad news.  I’m working with a foundation to fund your treatment and they agree you’re an excellent candidate.”

“You mean remission?”

“No.  You might not make it.  But it’ll be a good story and a great PR campaign.  We might be able to get money for your family, but you’ll need to work with us.”

Or this office visit elsewhere on the same day.  A patient, man or woman, has also gotten their same bad news.   The doctor is more blunt:

“I’m sorry.  I can’t help you.  I wish I could but the PR on your condition isn’t favorable.  Face it, Mr. Jones, most people think your colon cancer is your own fault.  Don’t be mad at me, it’s what my funding sources say.

People who have needed transplants or experimental treatments have often had to play the PR game to get money for treatment.  Bake sales, raffles, and telethons.

Increasingly, ordinary people with “ordinary” medical conditions have had to play the same game.  They have to hold raffles and bake sales for their care, too.  They will be judged.  They will have to air their complete medical histories to the world, hoping that they and their loved ones will be worthy of charity, hoping against hope that some celebrity gets their condition so they’ll get noticed.

But even this can backfire.  Over the summer, Farrah Fawcett died of cancer.  When a celebrity gets sick, many people idealize what happens.  Slate quotes a fan:

When Fawcett announced her apparent cure in 2007, one writer wished that her mother, who had died of cancer, "had half of the courage and fight that Farrah has." These war metaphors, which pervade the coverage of celebrity cancer cases, perpetuate the false notion that survival is directly related to how hard the patient tries to live.

That’s a terrible remark.  I sincerely hope that person hated her mother, because that is not something said or meant out of affection.

My own mom died of complications from colon cancer and diabetes, and fought to live for the last three years of her life.  She was finally taken down by a hip infection that left her in agony for three weeks.

She just wasn’t sentimentalized like Farrah was.  Ryan O’Neal, a longtime friend of hers, has been quoted a few times after her death.  He hasn’t said much, but reading between the lines, her death was a hard one, as are most cancer deaths.

But we were too busy watching her ascend to Heaven to notice.  I’m not sure if my mom ever made it there.  Colon cancer and diabetes are, after all, our just deserts for not being personally responsible.

At least, they could have a better PR agent.

UPDATE:  Barbara Ehrenreich thinks the same, and doesn’t like pink ribbons either.  (I like Ehrenreich and have read most of her books, and her blog.)