Christie Aschwanden is a 2011 National Magazine Award finalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Mother Jones, Reader’s Digest, Men’s Journal, and New Scientist. She’s a contributing editor for Runner’s World and writes about medicine for Slate. Follow her on Twitter @cragcrest or find her online at christieaschwanden.com.
This post originally ran on the blog Last Word on Nothing.
Over the week or so, critics have found many reasons to fault Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The scrutiny began with the revelation that the group was halting its grants to Planned Parenthood. The decision seemed like a punitive act that would harm low-income women (the money had funded health services like clinical breast exams), and Komen’s public entry into the culture wars came as a shock to supporters who’d viewed the group as nonpartisan. Chatter on the Internet quickly blamed the move on Komen’s new vice president of Public Policy, Karen Handel, a GOP candidate who ran for governor in Georgia on a platform that included a call to defund Planned Parenthood. Komen’s founder, Ambassador Nancy Brinker, attempted to explain away the decision, and on Tuesdy, Handel resigned her position.
The Planned Parenthood debacle brought renewed attention to other controversies about Komen from recent years—like its “lawsuits for the cure” program that spent nearly $1 million suing groups like “cupcakes for the cure” and “kites for the cure” over their daring attempts to use the now-trademarked phrase “for the cure.” Critics also pointed to Komen’s relentless marketing of pink ribbon-themed products, including a Komen-branded perfume alleged to contain carcinogens, and pink buckets of fried chicken, a campaign that led one rival breast cancer advocacy group to ask, “what the cluck?”
But these problems are minuscule compared to Komen’s biggest failing—its near outright denial of tumor biology. The pink arrow ads they ran in magazines a few months back provide a prime example. “What’s key to surviving breast cancer? YOU. Get screened now,” the ad says. The takeaway? It’s your responsibility to prevent cancer in your body. The blurb below the big arrow explains why. “Early detection saves lives. The 5-year survival rate for breast cancer when caught early is 98%. When it’s not? 23%.”
If only it were that simple. As I’ve written previously here, the notion that breast cancer is a uniformly progressive disease that starts small and only grows and spreads if you don’t stop it in time is flat out wrong. I call it breast cancer’s false narrative, and it’s a fairy tale that Komen has relentlessly perpetuated.