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Karen Heller: A stink about pink: Consume your way to the cure

October is a glorious time of year, what with autumn's majestic glory and the Phillies primed once again to play through the month. So what's with all this insistent pink?

October is a glorious time of year, what with autumn's majestic glory and the Phillies primed once again to play through the month. So what's with all this insistent pink?

If you forgot that this is Breast Cancer Awareness Month - and, really, how could you, unless you live in a monastery - watch the Eagles sporting pink cleats, wristbands, towels, and chin straps, out Barbie-ing Barbie. The total effect is mortifying, and I'm not simply referring to Sunday's performance.

Breasts are represented on the field, as always, by the cheerleaders.

But October is the month of the girlie cancer, the pretty illness, the shopping disease.

Cause marketing such as this allows companies to wrap themselves in a rosy cloak of self-aggrandizement. It's a lot of froth and icing.

This pink business is a huge boon to corporations, while potentially less of one to the 2.5 million women living with breast cancer, or the more than 40,000 whom the disease kills each year. A donor can do more good contributing directly to a charity.

I'm not immune to the therapeutic properties of shopping, but it seems insulting that breast cancer charities invite us to consume our way to the cure.

We don't shop for prostate cancer. Still, men are aware of the risks, the need for screening.

Breasts are huge in the cancer world, precisely due to all this pink. The movement, dominated by Susan G. Komen for the Cure - $1.5 billion donated since 1982 - has "become the envy of every other outfit on the planet," says Penn bioethicist Arthur Caplan.

When I ask Lankenau radiation oncologist Marisa Weiss, founder of, how she feels about October's shopathon, she sighs and says, "Oy," not once but twice.

"I have mixed feelings. They've cleansed and marketed this disease, putting bows on a very ugly, dangerous disease that can ravage many women in the prime of their lives," Weiss says.

"But it has also served the ability to talk about it, for women to feel more connected and not so alone," she says. "Pink takes away some of the horror and the shame and the stigma."

Breast cancer is "a much more complicated disease than most other cancers," Weiss says, involving multiple factors and risks.

It can't be linked to heredity, or one set of behaviors, as smoking is to the majority of lung cancer cases. "Progress is measurable. There are drops in mortality rates. I've been amazed by the advances, but also frustrated by the lack of progress."

For all the attention, the money, the pink, "we're not closer to the cure," Weiss says. One vaccine won't be a cure-all, as was the case with polio. "Sometimes," Caplan says, "the science isn't where the fund-raising campaign is."

Within the breast cancer world, as with other diseases affecting so many, organizations and priorities compete. Weiss points out that her site is "the top breast cancer site, the most visited."

She says, "I'd much prefer to prevent cancer than diagnose and cure it," the last being Susan G. Komen's mandate. "I think there's been very little money spent toward prevention." The battle rages over how often women should have mammograms.

This spring, Weiss was diagnosed with breast cancer. "Now I have dual citizenship in a country I never wanted to belong to." Diet, exercise, sleep, and moderate alcohol consumption help reduce risk, all steps she's taken. But, for many women, such vigilance isn't as much fun as shopping.

"When people say there is too much pink, I say there is not nearly enough pink," Komen's sister, Nancy Brinker, recently told USA Today. Her organization raises $55 million annually through cause marketing, including partnerships with companies like KFC, even though obesity is a known risk factor for breast cancer.

Breast Cancer Action has taken aim at what critics brand as "pinkwashing." In 2002, the advocacy group launched "Think Before You Pink," trying to get consumers to ask more questions. BCA successfully targeted pink-ribbon sponsor Yoplait, and later Dannon, for stimulating yogurt cultures with the bovine growth hormone rBGH, which has been linked to breast cancer. The companies have ceased using the growth hormone.

"We're encouraging people to ask critical questions when they encounter a pink product," says BCA's Kim Irish. "The average consumer is not going to do the research before they buy the product. They want to feel good about buying it."

Curious, and still in residual shock from Sunday's Linc pinkathon, I phoned the Eagles and asked how much pink money has been raised, and where it's going, since the website offers no such information. Turns out that every purchase of the team's top-selling Tackling Breast Cancer items, a $20 pink tie and a $24.99 Eagles green-and-pink cap, results in a $7.50 donation to the Jefferson Breast Care Center. The team has contributed $1.5 million in the last six years.

"We were the first NFL team to do this," says the Eagles' Julie Hirshey. "Now all NFL sites have pink hats."

Fine, more bragging and competition. But we'll take it.