Originally published November 1 2009
Interview with Barbara Brenner from Breast Cancer Action
by Mike Adams, the Health Ranger, NaturalNews Editor
(NaturalNews) Breast Cancer Action (www.BCaction.org) is one of the few non-profit cancer organizations recommended by NaturalNews. They're the creators of the Think Before You Pink campaign that encourages consumers to exercise more skepticism about the idea that "buying more pink stuff" can somehow help women with cancer.
Mike: Can you tell us about Breast Cancer Action?
Barbara: Yes, the website is www.BCAction.org and we have a companion website, which people can get to from www.BCAction.org, which is www.ThinkBeforeYouPink.org.
Mike: You have been running that for several years now. I think six or seven years, right?
Barbara: It is six years old actually. We started as a formal campaign in 2002. We have been asking questions like this in other context for longer, but as a formal campaign it launched in 2002.
Mike: Okay, outstanding. I have seen more coverage of the "Think Before You Pink" campaign in the mainstream media this year. It seems like it is starting to have some impact. What are you seeing?
Barbara: Well it is interesting. I think there is a contrast of things going on. It is clearly having an impact. We start asking questions and all of a sudden look who else is asking questions. The Komen Foundation is asking questions or asking people to ask questions. Not the same questions we are asking because they can't.
The Breast Cancer Research Foundation for which transparency is actually a problem is starting to encourage people to ask questions. That is all good in terms of transparency. There is more attention to the issue.
At the same time, it seems that every year there is more marketing. I am not sure how long this can go on. I think there is a contrast. It is interesting. As the critique emerges there are more people understanding the critique and asking questions from a consumer side. I think the companies don't get it yet. That is a bigger problem.
Mike: What are some of the most outrageous examples of these pink ribbon license products or companies marketing with pink ribbons but not really contributing to breast cancer prevention?
Six questions to screen for 'pink washers'Barbara: Well who works on prevention besides some advocacy organizations and some researchers? Bless them! It is all sort of in the mind's eye. Let me talk about prevention for a minute because this is actually very important. We have been running this campaign since 2006. The focus has been on transparency and accountability.
Do we know
there are six questions we want people to ask. They are on the website. How much money from your purchase actually goes to breast cancer? Is there a cap? What's the maximum they will donate?
How much money was spent by the company on marketing? Was it more than they gave to breast cancer, because that will tell you it is more about the company's bottom line than it is about women who are sick. Are the funds being raised in a way that it is your money that is being given a corporate label or is it with the corporate money that is going?
To what breast cancer organizations does the money go, and what types of programs does it support? It is not enough to say we support breast cancer. Excuse my French, but what the hell is that? Specifics.
Well, what does the program do? This is the sixth question and the question that women are the only ones asking, which is what is the company doing to assure that its products aren't contributing to the epidemic. That is the prevention question. There are four industry groups that are trying to have it both ways. They want to tell you they care deeply about women's lives, which is why they put a pink ribbon on something.
You know it is interesting as just sort of a little side note, many companies think that their way into women's hearts because women are the shoppers, right, is breast cancer because women care more about breast cancer than any other disease even though other things are more likely to kill them.
Actually they see that they understand the bottom line will be helped by putting a pink ribbon on something, but the companies that at the same time do that put a pink ribbon on something say we really care about women. Look we put a pink ribbon here. We give money to breast cancer and at the same time make a product that has been linked to breast cancer.
Barbara: Those are the two-timers. We call them 'pink washers.' This comes out of the environmental movement. Our allies in the environmental movement some time ago coined the phrase 'green washing' where companies forge a great example of this and they are also pink washers so Ford
you can get Ford coming and going. Where Ford claims to really care about the environment, says it has a green campaign and at the same time is one of the worst offenders in terms of pollution in many ways.
Pink washing of the companies that say we care and at the same time are creating a product that is not good for your health. Those are car companies involved in breast cancer, dairy companies involved in breast cancer if they use milk that has been stimulated with rBGH or bovine growth hormone alcohol companies and the cosmetics companies. Our focus this year is on the car companies.
The pink ribbon gameMike: Wow, hooray to you for pointing this out. This is so important. Why do you think consumers are so easily hoodwinked into just buying anything with a pink ribbon on it? I mean isn't this happening because it is so successful from a commercial point of view and does that not depend somewhat on consumer behavior?
Barbara: The success of the marketing campaigns depends entirely on consumer behavior, which is why we are trying to change consumer behavior. This campaign is not called "Think Before You Pink" for nothing. We are trying to get people to think.
Every time you see a pink ribbon, do you know the answers to these questions and if you don't might you buy something else? It is very clear that consumer pressure can change company behavior. Why this is so successful is because we are in a culture now.
It has been true in the United States I think for a very long time where we want simple answers. We want the pill that will prevent cancer. We want to do the simple thing and the simple thing will actually assuage your consciousness and solve the problem. Buying something is pretty simple. If shopping could cure breast cancer it would be cured by now.
What we say to people is that people need to keep in mind the players in this pink marketing thing have different motives. Companies are trying to make money. That is their business. They make money by selling products. They think, and they have evidence to show that they sell more products if they link to a cause that shoppers care about, and most shoppers are women.
You have two products in front of you. One has a pink ribbon and one does not. If you care about breast cancer why would you not buy the pink ribbon one? Something is better than nothing is usually the question we get. Our answer is not always. They do it because it is successful. We need the consuming public to start asking some serious questions.
Mike: Now I have reported on many of the organizations in the breast cancer industry and when I started talking about a lot of the other non-profits my readers kept sending me your link and saying you need to support Breast Cancer Action. The more I looked into your organization that is when I became a real ally a supporter of what you are doing.
Barbara: Thank you so much.
Mike: Here is a question for you. Why is it so important that your organization does not accept money from companies that profit from the disease?
Transparency in the breast cancer industryBarbara: I've been the executive director at Breast Cancer Action for 12 years, but before I got here the organization really struggled with the question of how people can really believe what we say and can we be bought. We always had a position saying we can't be bought.
Then things happened in the movement for various reasons. All of this is documented and people can find it on our website under the history of the development of this policy. In 1998 I was really inspired by a very famous environmental scientist named Sandra Steingraber. She is a biologist and a poet and I recommend her work to anyone who cares to read it.
The organization said okay it is time to actually put this in writing. What will we do, what will we not do? Not because money is bad; money is good actually. Everybody needs money to make things go. Certainly we do. We took a position that is very public.
You know we call for transparency so we try to model it. We took a position that says we won't accept any money from anyone who profits in cancer. That is everybody from hospitals to insurance companies to pharmaceutical companies or from any company we know to be creating a product that is contributing to the cancer problem.
We wrote it down and essentially we were the first national cancer organization to do this. We do it because we are trying to get real information out to people. We want people to believe what we say and to understand we have not been paid to say it by any interest that might conflict.
Barbara: We are an advocacy organization. As an education advocacy organization this is a critically important position. It is not so important sometimes to people providing direct service, and we provide service. If people need information we get it to them. We send it to them. We try to make sure it has not been influenced by Pharma or if it has we tell them that so they know.
For an education advocacy organization that is a very important thing to do, we think, because people need to know for two reasons. People need to know you say what you say because you believe it, and not because you have been paid to say it.
The other is that we are building alliances across issues. We are a breast cancer organization that sees this in a social justice frame. If we change what happens in breast cancer, we change the universe.
Whether it comes to universal access to quality care or what in the environment is making people sick? Our policy on where we take our money actually allows us to walk through doors that might otherwise be closed to us of very grass roots organizations who are very concerned about the exploitation of their communities.
We adopted that policy in 1998 and the Journal of the National Cancer Institute was astonished and published an article about it. It has created a very interesting conversation in cancer. Some smaller organizations have adopted the same policy. Other organizations have tried to limit how much they take from the pharmaceutical industry. People have to assess for themselves whether that is successful or not.
What is Breast Cancer Action all about?Mike: Now can you give a quick overview of exactly how Breast Cancer Action uses its money. Obviously we know about education programs. What else for every $100 that goes to your organization how is that directly helping women with breast cancer?
Barbara: Well for every $100 that comes to Breast Cancer Action the first thing people need to know is that our administrative costs are quite low well within the limit set by all the standard agencies that say you can't be spending more than 25% on administration and we don't. Our programs do essentially three things. We provide information to anybody who needs it. We do that in a number of ways. We have staff here who answers the phone, 9:00 to 5:00 five days a week.
If somebody calls here and needs something we either give it to them or give them one other number to call to get it. We are trying to make sure that people don't have to call too many places. We have a website or two of them.
A lot of this information is on the websites. We are about to improve the search engine. People can find information there. We publish a substantive newsletter. We have been doing it for 17 years. There is a lot of information that we try to make understandable and useful to people.
Information is the start. When people send us money it is helping us help other people with information they need to make decisions in a very confusing world. I should say if somebody goes online and enters a search for breast cancer I think it fries the computer. There are so many breast cancer sites and so much going on that we try to be the clear voice and help people understand what is happening.
Mike: Real quick along those lines. How much of your information really tells women the truth about environmental causes, toxic chemicals, and nutritional implications and so on?
Barbara: Well, we don't do a whole lot on the nutritional side. There are many people who do. We are very supportive of them. We are very focused on the environmental exposures that individuals can't control.
The reason we are focused that way is because a lot of people are telling people what they can do as individuals and we hope people will do those things. None of them guarantee that you won't get sick. We aren't there tragically.
We aren't close. At the same time we believe that if people, after they are done doing what they need to do to protect themselves, will think about what they can do together with people in their community or across the world to make the world a better place for the next generation. Then we create a future that is different from the present.
We have a lot of information about environmental toxins that people are exposed to involuntarily and we provide that to people. We give them the tools to try to address those problems and ways to engage with others to try to change it.
I want to go back to your question about what happens when people send us money so we do three things. We provide information to anyone who needs it, and that is information about diagnosis, about what is in the environment that is making people sick. It is about how to help somebody who has been diagnosed. There is a brochure about if you have been newly diagnosed. What questions should you be asking your doctor and those sorts of things and information about treatments.
The second thing we do is organize people to do something besides worry because people are plenty worried. I think everybody in the breast cancer movement has to take responsibility for that including us. Many people misunderstand what the statistics mean. It is not the case that everybody in the world is going to get breast cancer. Too many people have breast cancer and we want people to transform their worry into action that will create a different present and a different future.
Whether that is advocating with the legislature for something you care about or like single parent healthcare, for example, or writing a letter to the editor when you see something about that pink ribbon marketing and it upsets you or doing community outreach in your community to tell people about the work that this organization and how they can make a difference. Organizing is the second thing we do.
The third thing we do with the money that people send us is policy advocacy. The policy advocacy focuses on three things. More effective and less toxic treatments because people are made very sick by the way we treat them for breast cancer, and we need to do better. Universal access to quality care so that when we have better treatments everybody can get them, which they now can't do.
What in the environment is making so many people sick? We are endorsers of what is called the "precautionary principle," which most people really know better as "first do no harm" or "better safe than sorry." It is not always easy to apply but it is very easy to understand and it does work.
Where is the focus on prevention?Mike: Indeed. Now it seems like the conventional medical industry remains just entirely focused on detection, screening and treatment and really has no interest in prevention or reducing the toxic chemical load in the environment or even admitting to it. It seems like this really puts your organization in a unique position.
Barbara: I think we are in a unique position because we actually see the frame of these issues in such a large context. There are many breast cancer organizations, many of them doing fabulous work, but if you only focus on breast cancer and keep your frame that narrowed you really don't see what needs to happen.
We need structural change and structural change happens because people demand it. I've got to say my heart goes out to the oncologists. I don't know how they do it. I have actually never asked my oncologist this but I probably should one day. How is it you do your job day-to-day and watch people die?
They are made so sick in many cases by the treatments we give them. There are more scientists fortunately starting to look at the environmental side, but really the medical community generally speaking, and you can't say this is true with everybody because there are certainly exceptions to this.
I have seen enough stories for example on environmental links to breast cancer when the big Long Island Breast Cancer Study came out God, I can't even remember when that was it might have been 1998 was a big year. It might have been 1998. There is a lot of breast cancer on Long Island.
There was a big push to look at what in the environment in Long Island was making people sick. It became intensely politicized because the legislators got involved. The scientists got involved. The activists got involved and of course when you get all those people involved what you get is no agreement on what should be done.
They did the study and the study came out and was widely reported as it does not show anything. That is an inaccuracy. Actually it showed quite a bit. It was widely reported that way and then every time another study comes out or the question comes up about what in the environment is making people sick a lot of the medical community says "Oh we have looked that. We are done."
Excuse me? Or we don't have the evidence. It is very interesting actually. The medical profession is very quick to move on treatments, to add a new treatment based on very limited information.
In a way they will never move on precaution based on limited information. It is a disconnect for the medical community. We are trying to make a connection for the public.
Mike: Yes, that is interesting that there is really no incentive to prevent the disease. This is something I have pointed out quite a bit. No one is really looking at ways to eliminate patients or eliminate the revenue from a patient who would need medical care. I mean you cure or prevent breast cancer and oncology loses a revenue stream. I am not saying that they are willfully insidious in that way, but there is just no incentive to prevent it.
Barbara: Well, I think it depends on who you are talking to. I think the industry has very little incentive to prevent it unless they can figure out a way to make money and do that. Oncologists are a whole other universe as from an industry point of view but think about the companies who are involved in this. The companies, you say prevention they want to give you pills.
Barbara: We have a lot of it and women in particular have a lot of experience with having pills thrown at them to prevent disease only to find out they get sick with something else. Pills to prevent cancer are going to result in disease substitution. You may quote me.
That is their approach and they take that approach because there is money in it. There they continue to make money. If we are going to get to real prevention the public has to engage and we have so dumbed it down with pink marketing. It is very hard for people to see that.
Mike: Right, well apparently now in the world breast cancer is caused by a deficiency of shopping for pink products.
Barbara: Getting people to understand it, it is hard. It is hard to say to people really because they don't want to hear it. You think that is going to work, but it is not.
This is why we do this education piece. We aren't as big as the Komen Foundation. We will never be as big as the Komen Foundation. Everybody has heard of the Komen Foundation. They have just changed their name to the "Susan G. Komen For the Cure Foundation." The cure, you know I really believe we can do better. I do but we are never going to completely cure cancer or breast cancer.
Get a grip folks. The body is a very complicated thing. Cancer will in many cases trump whatever we do because it is very complicated. We can do better. We should stop promising cure because it is just an illusion. Some people will be cured, and in breast cancer in particular what I say to people because I am living with this disease. What I say to people is okay cure.
What that means is I live to a ripe old age and I die of something else because if you have invasive breast cancer the kind of breast cancer that show the ability to spread to other organs and therefore kill you, because breast cancer in your breast can't kill you. It is breast cancer that spreads to life sustaining organs that can.
If you are treated for that kind of disease nobody can say to you when you are treated "We have now cured you." Most of the cure data, and this is promoted by the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, it is enough to make most of us insane. Okay, what is cure? It is five years survival.
The myth behind 'the cure'Barbara: That is brought to you by the American Cancer Society. They did it and there are cancers in which if you are diagnosed relatively early you get the available treatments you live five years following treatment without a recurrence, your risk of having the disease again is the same as if you never had it in the first place. That is one definition of a cure.
You can't say about that invasive breast cancer. It is simply not true. We have been trying to debunk that myth forever, and when breast cancer organizations want to tout it what are we supposed to do?
Mike: There are so many myths out there. Even this talk about searching for "the cure," it assumes that there is a chemical that exists out there or that can be synthesized that if this chemical is introduced into your body that it will cure breast cancer. Like we need one more chemical.
Barbara: Right. We have on breast cancer, at the www.BCAction.org website if you search for myths what you will get to is the top ten breast cancer myths debunked.
One of them is pollutants aren't linked to breast cancer. Another one is positive thinking will prolong your life, which actually has not been shown to be true. Really being angry sometimes does better.
Consumer demand is the best weapon against pink washingMike: By the way, getting back to the pink products I should ask you are there one or two corporations doing this pink ribbon sponsorship that you recommend, that you think are doing a good job and donating to the right causes?
Barbara: We don't actually endorse particular products because what is good and what is bad is going to be in the eye of the beholder. For example some people will think that 10% of the purchase price to a product is really great. Other people would say no it has to be 50%.
Mike: Fifty percent?
Barbara: Yes, some people will say that.
Mike: I think most of these companies are doing like half a percent aren't they?
Barbara: Well actually let me give you the Ford example because we did the math. It is hard to find this information and it shouldn't be. That is one of the points of this campaign. It shouldn't be hard to find the answers to those six questions. We put enormous resources into trying to get this information to people and put them on the parade of pink that is on our website.
So what we could not get the answers from Ford so we finally got the answer in a news article that was published in the Detroit News about "Think Before You Pink." The Ford Mustang that has a pink ribbon decal that comes with it, that is their pink car. It is a Mustang. It costs $28,000. Okay?
Barbara: Of which $250 goes to breast cancer. That is 0.4%. Is that good enough? Some people will have different opinions but people should know that Ford is a pink washer and we should send an email to the company, you can do it from "Think Before You Pink," send an email to the company and tell them to clean up their act. We aren't telling people to stop driving. We want people to tell the companies to make better products. If consumers demand it, it happens. That's how it works.
Mike: Right. Well and that is why your organization is so important. I really applaud your work and I wish you the greatest success with this campaign and in the years ahead.
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