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Dr. Elaine Schattner Headshot

Beyond Pink: What Matters for Future Progress Against Breast Cancer

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October's fading. This year, it seems like Breast Cancer Awareness Month has taken on a subdued, faded tone. The pink ads and ribbons, so ubiquitous in recent memory, appear smaller and farther between. Last weekend, as marchers in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer passed through my neighborhood, some averted their eyes from onlookers. The American Cancer Society's Manhattan Making Strikes Against Breast Cancer event, held last Sunday, was festive but similarly hushed. There were few cheers or welcome signs along the route.

Unlike, say, gay pride or Dominican spirit in a parade along Fifth Avenue, or similar events I've witnessed in previous years, the participants didn't exude enthusiasm. Rather, they seemed hesitant. They chatted amongst themselves quietly, almost silent, as if they didn't want to wake up the neighbors and draw attention to their concern, as if they somehow felt apologetic for fundraising and yes -- raising awareness -- about breast cancer's deadly effects and needed research.

I wanted to hug each and every one who walked by and say this: "Thank you!"

In recent years, journalists, doctors and others have, appropriately, questioned the goals and spreadsheets of major cancer charities. Last winter, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation got a black eye for its misguided and politically-driven attempt to defund Planned Parenthood. But long before that fiasco, KomenWatch was priming for the punch. I'm a registered Democrat and value Planned Parenthood as much as might any Nation-subscribing, primary-voting liberal New York denizen. But I also recognize that over the years Komen has funded plenty of good research, including the Institute of Medicine's 2011 report on breast cancer and the environment, top scientists' labs and clinical investigators' work.

One key to legitimate fundraising is transparency. Last week, the New York State Attorney General's office announced that two of the country's largest breast cancer charities, Komen and the New-York based Breast Cancer Research Foundation, signed on to a best practices policy. This agreement should make it easier for someone to "think pink" in a smart way and to distinguish between legitimate agencies and fraudulent groups that exploit the feel-good notion of supporting people affected by breast cancer. At some level, I might add, it's the consumer's responsibility to ask -- for which foundation, exactly, and how much of the tab will Staples be contributing based on my purchase today?

Pink is not the enemy. If I wanted to delay progress and derail breast cancer research funds, I would do just this: I'd spark a giant argument among people who care about the disease so much that they dedicate hours, days and careers working for prevention, better and early detection (so that less treatment is needed), more effective therapy, and old-fashioned support for patients and their families, so they don't go broke and their kids can get to school and their husbands or lovers don't lose their jobs while caregiving.

The color pink is irrelevant to progress, or lack of progress, against breast cancer's toll. Pointing to tacky examples of #PinkNausea, a Twitter hashtag, can be funny or, perhaps, a therapeutic channel for anger -- what should be rage -- against a killer disease. But it doesn't matter in terms of science or new drugs. It is neither good nor bad. Sure, selling pink guns is problematic. But that's because they're weapons that might be used to kill people, not because of the way they look. This giant pink cat fight distracts women from hard, critical thinking about what needs be done to save women's breasts, hormonal integrity and lives.

I admit, it can be annoying to see a lot of pink stuff, especially if you're in the midst of treatment, are trying to get your mind off your friend's biopsy or pending death, or if you happen not to like the color pink. (I don't.) I remember distinctly feeling "Who needs an awareness month?" when I went to the movies during the October of my diagnosis, when the previews included reminders about mammography and gorgeous, full-chested models in a pink spiel. Some contend that pink culture is off-putting to people with advanced disease. Some perceive, and it may be, that they're left out of so-called survivors' marches or gala events. But in the past decade, in every single breast cancer event and meeting where I've been, there's been nothing of the sort, nothing short of a full embrace of people affected by advanced disease who are, generally, regarded as heroes. They're the very reason why so many work so hard to support studies for prevention and better therapy of metastases.

What I hope for future Octobers is that the discussion will focus on progress and setbacks in breast cancer, the disease. Yes, the different agencies have different priorities. The National Breast Cancer Coalition, for example, is outspoken in its push for prevention. The Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) focuses on research for better and less-toxic drugs. Breast Cancer Action emphasizes environmental factors that contribute to the disease rate. Each of these groups and others, including Dr. Susan Love and Avon's Army of Women, the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network and Metavivor, do valuable work for people at risk and affected by breast cancer. It's not a contest. Negativity splinters the influence and progress accomplished by each agency. The goals are largely mutual.

If you care about breast cancer, you can pick your agency and support its efforts as you like. Yes, the fundraising should be transparent. You should think before you pink, as you might before giving to any solicitor of charitable funds. But let's not argue about the color and the ribbon which was, 20 years ago, an emblem of openness about a disease that women were afraid to mention out loud. Breast cancer is not a benign condition that can be ignored; those who understand that much should be working together, communicating and cooperating, to lessen its toll.

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