Komen : Raising Awareness of Hollow Gestures

A while back, I was sitting outside at a café, enjoying dinner with some friends, and a loosely organized parade of people sporting a cornucopia of pink items came walking by.  Some wore pink shirts, some pink headbands; even a few pink tutus were present.

By and large, they were laughing, jovial, and noisy.  Seemingly unprompted “woooo!” bursts sprang erratically from the crowd.  One block ahead, the procession would turn left and head to their final destination somewhere else in town.  What I presumed, and later confirmed, is they were taking part in an event sponsored by Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

My reaction?  Anger.  Gritted teeth.  A small lump in the throat.  So much of what I was seeing seemed wrong.  I don’t doubt that the majority of the participants were coming from a good place when they signed up to participate – maybe they thought they were simply doing something positive, perhaps doing it in memory of a loved one.  Without question, participating in that event and raising money was ultimately a greater good than, say, spending that day sitting on the couch watching reruns.

What I question, though, is just how much good it was doing, and for whom.

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Susan G. Komen for the Cure presents itself as a nonprofit organization interested in finding a cure for breast cancer.  In absolute dollars, they do collect a large amount of money that goes to fund cancer research.  What may surprise you, though, is what percentage of their revenue goes to actual research for a cure – only about 17% of it.  Even if you include the dollars spent on prevention and treatment – equally important missions – the percent of revenue used still totals under 37%.  The majority of their budget is labeled as “education”, which – pardon my cynicism – is essentially advertising for more revenue to Komen.

One thing we know Komen is doing with their donated revenue is bringing lawsuits against over 100 small charities across the country for using the words “for the cure” in their marketing.  When not litigating, they issue threats and warnings to other non-profits to cease using the color pink in any conjunction with the word “cure”.

It’s important to focus on the percentage going to research instead of absolute dollars Komen directs to research.  Why?  Because for decades, the amount of income that Americans give to charity has remained constant; Komen isn’t creating any more charitable giving with their relentless pinkwashing and marketing, they simply funnel more of it their way – to be used primarily to subsidize more marketing, not research.

Speaking of marketing,  I can’t shake the feeling that these obnoxiously loud and bright displays have a whole lot more to do with the participants than the disease.

Of all the things one can imagine doing to either fight that evil bastard cancer, or alleviate the pain and suffering of those that have been forced to live with it, putting on an abundance of pink clothing and accessories and giggling my way around densely populated public places isn’t one of them.  Perhaps, those that do are more interested in the attention it brings them than the attention it brings the cause?

The excuse that these garish displays are necessary to “raise awareness” holds no water.  Let’s be honest – everyone is aware of breast cancer.  Everyone.  Although they can’t lay claim to such cheeky slogans as “Save the Titties”, cancers of the colon and rectum kill more people every year than breast cancer does – were you aware of that?  Pancreatic cancer kills almost as many people.  Lung cancer kills over three times as many.  Families who struggle with Angelman’s Syndrome or a host of other rare diseases actually do need to raise awareness for their cause – public events in those cases serve an altruistic end.

When I think back to those days of cluelessness and uncertainty with my mother in the hospital, then the days of pain in the oncology ward where reality unfolded in plain view, I can’t imagine associating any of it with laughs and smiles.  Cancer is ugly.  Cancer hurts.  Cancer is hell.

All people grieve differently; but if someone is interested in giving something from themselves – time or money – there are much more effective ways to give.  Ways that focus their benefit on substance more than spectacle.

You can give cash to organizations more fervently committed to a cure like the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, or the Cancer Research Institute, both of which contribute over 85% of their revenue to research.  St. Jude’s focuses on pediatric cancer, and Stand Up to Cancer uses an innovate approach to the issuing of its grants.

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Instead of spending three or four hours walking around in pink outfits, maybe you could volunteer at your nearest oncology unit and speak to lonely patients.  Bring them candy, or magazines.  Ask the devastated family members in the waiting room looking through the wall of vending machines with thousand-yard stares if there’s anything you can do to help; pick up dinner for them, run an errand to ease some of the burden.

I don’t begrudge anyone looking to help other people; just make sure other people is who you’re helping.

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