Inside Story America

Have breast cancer campaigns been beneficial?

We ask if awareness campaigns are hindering much needed research on the causes and cure of the disease.

The pink ribbon has become a globally recognised symbol of the fight against breast cancer. And once again, October was deemed a month of awareness for a disease that claims the lives of tens of thousands of women worldwide each year.

“I think women with breast cancer now feel much more welcome and comfortable, not just in doctor’s offices, but talking openly with their families, with their friends and in their communities, that helps them to get the support that they need.”

– Dr Elaine Schattner, runs a cancer immunology research lab and a breast cancer survivor

There is little doubt that many with cancer have found strength in the knowledge that they are not alone, as a result of such campaigns.

An estimated $6bn is raised annually – yet survival rates for those diagnosed have not improved dramatically over the last 20 years.

And some have questioned whether, rather than the race for a cure, it is those marketing pink-branded products from Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) to the National Football League (NFL) that are the main financial beneficiaries of awareness campaigns.

The role of the Susan G. Komen foundation has come under particular scrutiny.

The charity owns stock in pharmaceutical companies, and businesses like General Electric who make mammogram machines. Its sponsors include companies that produce products that have been linked to cancer.

I think that raising awareness was important and we have done that …. It used to be behind some of the male issues now it is [an] issue at the forefront. And perhaps we do need to start redirecting the money toward finding a cure, research and things which maybe hadn’t been focused on in the past”

– Kim Patton, Foundation Center

Critics question whether, as a result, an organisation viewed by many as a pre-eminent authority on breast cancer, is in fact helping stifle much needed debate and research on pinpointing the causes of the disease and its most effective treatment.

It is easy to wonder whether donors are getting a good return on their charitable investments.

In the US, both state and federal government agencies provide money for research and there are roughly 1,400 IRS-recognised (Internal Revenue Service), tax-exempt charities devoted to breast cancer.

An estimated $6bn is raised every year in the name of breast cancer but not all that money goes to research or even grants.  

For example, the NFL sells pink breast cancer awareness gear, and it says the proceeds go to the American Cancer Society. But, only five per cent of sales go to American Chemical Society (ACS), meaning that the NFL is keeping the vast majority of money from the sale of pink merchandise.

And even though massive amounts of money have been raised, a cure remains elusive. Breast cancer remains the leading cancer killer among women ages 20 to 59.

In 2012, 110 women died every day of breast cancer compared to the 119 daily breast cancer deaths in 1991.

So what impact are breast cancer awareness campaigns having?

To discuss this, Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, is joined by guests: Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action; Elaine Schattner, a doctor who ran a cancer immunology research lab and is a breast cancer survivor herself; and Kim Patton, who works for the Foundation Center, an organisation that trains charities and non-profit groups.

“This grassroots movement of activists to really bring breast cancer out of the closet was very important in destigmatising the disease as well as bringing much needed resources to the disease. Unfortunately today that awareness is stopping us from actually moving in the directions that we need to move …. In the last 30 years, despite the billions … that is raised in the name of and spent on breast cancer, we simply are not seeing a reduction in incidents nor are we seeing improvement in the mortality for women diagnosed with the disease …. Thirty years after the sort of push for more awareness and resources for breast cancer, we still can’t explain more than half of our breast cancers …. We have a long way to go in understanding the disease and we have a long way to go in terms of stopping this epidemic.”

Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action