Memo to the “Hippest Town in NJ:” Please Stop Painting Yourself Pink

Over the past couple of months, I tried to get a number of editors to bite on this story: the town of Redbank, NJ (which calls itself “hippest town in NJ” thereby, ipso facto, making it not) has painted itself pink “to raise awareness of the importance of breast cancer prevention, detection, and treatment.” I wanted to take apart the whole premise, possibly doing an annotated “memo” of its press release a la Harper’s. Couldn’t get anyone to go for it.

I was reminded of the concept again today by Anthony Moro, husband of Rachel Cheetham Moro, the  author of The Cancer Culture Chronicles blog (and inspiration to activists everywhere) who died earlier this year of breast cancer.  Rachel died in the hospital sponsoring this event. And she would have hated. it. As Anthony writes on the blog, “painting the town pink”:

…doesn’t help prevent death from breast cancer. More mammograms don’t lower mortality, awareness doesn’t cure disease. Mammograms and awareness certainly don’t help anybody dealing with advanced disease. Mammograms and awareness don’t provide any comfort from my grief, and their pink flags mock me daily.  This stuff is in my face every day, and now it has a gala reception and celebrity appearances.

He is absolutely right. I have written this and written this over and over. Those of you interested in more effective breast cancer advocacy might want to check out Breast Cancer Action or the National Breast Cancer Coalition. Meanwhile, for the record, blow  is my hall-of-shame annotation of the Redbank press release. And here is Rachel’s post on last year’s “Paint the Town Pink.”

 

Hi there –

I know you don’t traditionally cover local NJ stories, but this is something truly newsworthy to a nationwide audience, and any help in spreading the message would be much appreciated. Paint the Town Pink is a community-wide effort presented by Riverview Medical Center in Red Bank, NJ to raise awareness of the importance of breast cancer prevention, detection, and treatment.

They say they are raising “awareness.” Of what? Well, number one, they say of how to prevent breast cancer. If they know how to do that, give them the Nobel Prize immediately: there is no scientifically proven way to prevent breast cancer. There are some things that may reduce risk—such as limiting alcohol consumption, avoiding hormone replacement—but prevention? Nope. They seem to be making the common (and detrimental)  mistake of indicating that mammography prevents cancer. It doesn’t. It detects cancer.

Red Bank, in Monmouth County NJ, is regarded by many as “the hippest town in NJ.”

Said it before: calling yourself “hip” makes you ipso facto not.

Downtown Red Bank is situated along the banks of the Navesink River where numerous rock stars and movie stars have made their home.

Perhaps some of those hip movie and rock stars will become “aware” of how they’re being used to spend misinformation about breast cancer and do something that actually makes a difference in the fight against the disease.

Six years ago, Riverview Medical Center set forth on a breast health crusade, directed at encouraging women, aged 40 and over, to have their annual mammogram,

The necessity and efficacy of annual mammograms for women 40-49 is highly controversial and does not appear to confer any life-saving benefit. In  2009, the United States Preventive Services Task Force  found that the risks of mammography outweighed the benefits for that age group its guidelines suggest that women in that age group who are of average or low risk discuss the value of their test with their physician. The unquestioning encouragement by Paint the Town Pink, however, would result in big profits for the hospital involved….

as well as to raise money to provide mammography to the uninsured and underserved in the community.

Okay, that’s nice, but more on this later.

 In conjunction with the Women’s Center at Riverview, the mission behind the Paint the Town Pink campaign was to educate women about a very significant fact: that early detection is a woman’s best defense against breast cancer.

 

Stop. Right. There. Early detection a “defense” against cancer? “Defense,” again, implies that it prevents the disease. At best mammography detects breast cancer (and it misses tumors in up to 20% of cases). No responsible authority would say the test prevents it.

But perhaps they mean that early detection is your best defense against dying of breast cancer? Well….maybe. Here’s what’s important to understand (and what I keep harping on in my articles): You have to look at the kind of cancer mammography catches as well its impact on that cancer. Mammography is very good at finding early stage cancers called Ductal Carcainoma in Situ which would only become invasive (hence life-threatening) 30% of the time. Yet since medical science does not yet know which DCIS cancer will become invasive all are equally aggressively treated. That means 70% of women with this sort of cancer did not need the disfiguring surgery or radiation they underwent. Nonetheless, pink ribbon advocates count these women as success stories—“survivors” of a cancer that would never have killed them.

The second kind of cancer mammography catches is the one we hope for: the kind that, if caught early, can be successfully treated. For this segment, mammography does indeed save lives. Yay mammography!

The third kind of cancer is the most aggressive. No matter how “early” it’s caught by mammography it is too late. Mammography has had no impact on the death rates from this form of cancer, which is why the actual number of women (and men) who die of cancer today—about 40,000 annually, including Rachel Cheetham Moro—is greater than it was in the 1980s. While the overall death rates  as a percentage of those diagnosed has dropped (again in part because of mammography’s penchant for finding DCIS) The death rate for those with metastatic disease, the kind that will kill you, has not budged.

What started off as just one town (Red Bank), grew into three towns for 2011. For 2012, the number of towns has grown to NINE – making the 2012 event the most represented in the campaign’s history!

 

How nice: 9 towns now spread misinformation.

Many businesses throughout Monmouth County turn their towns into a vision of pink in May. They are enthusiastic about breast cancer education and gathering donations to help women who do not have insurance, or are under-insured. As a member of the Pink community, we have a unique opportunity to integrate this educational message into a woman’s daily routine as she shops and dines at the many businesses in these towns.

Swathing the town in pink and promoting mammography may not do much for women with cancer, but it’s a great way to boost profits for local businesses and make people feel good.

From high-end boutiques offering a “pink tag sale” on Jimmy Choo shoes, to restaurants offering drink specials and “pink menus,” to the Broadway Diner with a hand painted mural about mammography, these towns has embraced the event. We also strive to make the educational process fun through various events. Planned once again for this year is a community-wide kick-off event on May 5th called “Paint Everything Pink. This event draws more than 3,500 community members for a day of education and fun.

The growth of Paint the Town Pink into neighboring towns, the footprint extended in these communities, the expanding volunteer base, the compelling educational messages, the inspirational stories shared…

Pink campaigns tend to focus on what Gayle Sulik, author of Pink Ribbon Blues, calls the “she-roes” narrative: stories of warriors in heels who kick cancer’s butt (and look fab doing it). She-roes say what people want to hear: that not only have they survived cancer but the disease has made them better people and better women. It almost goes without saying that they do not contract late-stage disease, nor do they die.

…the creation of the Pink Fund…

The Pink Fund? What does it do?

and the desire by people to be part of something authentic, tangible, and meaningful takes Paint the Town Pink beyond the pink.

People really do want to be involved in something tangible and meaningful. It’s too bad this campaign does not fit that criteria.

Beyond the visually pink landscape, Paint the Town Pink has brought families together, neighbors together, and businesses and communities together, while organically spreading a very important message. After five successful years of Paint the Town Pink activities, funding is now available to cover 250 free mammograms in 2012!

What happens if one of those mammograms finds an abnormality or, God forbid, cancer? Those women will need follow-up procedures, possibly surgery, possibly radiation or chemotherapy or more. If they are uninsured or under-insured who will pay for that care? Free mammograms are nice, but then what?

 

We Need Your Help!

You can help us remind women of the importance of their annual mammogram in a fun and positive way! The idea is truly scalable and customizable. Ideas range from “pale pink” to “fuchsia” in scale.  Here are some examples:

  • Dress a member of your media team in pink in support of our campaign
  • Broadcast the logo in pink
  • Develop medical features about the prevention, detection, and new treatments for breast cancer, and how just because Breast Cancer Awareness Month is not until October, it should not be forgotten about the other 11 months of the year

 

I agree. Breast cancer is an issue all year long.  But extending the dissemination of misinformation and profit-making should not be.

Think Before You Pink Toolkit available at Breast Cancer Action