What is the cancer industry?

Cancer is now so prevalent that a whole industry revolves around it — not only health care providers and cancer clinics, but manufacturers of the machines, devices and tests used to detect or treat it, pharmaceutical companies that produce oncology drugs, advertising and public relations organizations, cancer research institutes, cancer funding agencies, etc. This “cancer industry” keeps thousands of people employed and pumps masses of money into the economy, all of which divert attention away from the need to find the causes of cancer. BCAQc asks that you be particularly alert to drug companies that make money from cancer-treating drugs while also producing cancer-causing chemicals, to car manufacturers that loudly support cancer research while producing vehicles that spew cancer-causing emissions into our environment, and to cancer agencies that ignore or downplay the potential carcinogens in the thousands of environmental contaminants that surround us on a daily basis.

Where did Breast Cancer Awareness Month start?

The designation of October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month began in 1984 and was promoted by the drug company — now called AstraZeneca — that manufactures tamoxifen. At one time, AstraZeneca was owned by ICI, a company that on the one hand, produced drugs to treat breast cancer and, on the other, profited from the sale of a cancer-causing herbicide. Nowadays, growing numbers of manufacturers and retailers urge you to buy products identified by a pink ribbon or to participate in activities in aid of breast cancer research. Generally very little information is available about the proportion of the sale price or the amount of the donation made or, indeed, about the kind of breast cancer research supported. The vast majority of money intended for breast cancer research will fund improvements in detection or treatment. BCAQc recommends that you ask questions before buying any pink ribbon product or participating in pink-ribbon-marked events. BCAQc further recommends that you donate directly to a breast cancer research organization while stipulating that your money be used for research into the causes of breast cancer. Read Profits in Pink.

Where did the pink ribbon come from?

In the early 1990s, an American grandmother, Charlotte Haley, began making peach ribbons by hand in her home. Her daughter, sister and grandmother all had breast cancer. She personally distributed thousands of ribbons with cards that read: “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion. Only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.” Executives from the cosmetic giant, Estée Lauder, and Self magazine asked Haley for permission to use her ribbon. Haley refused, saying that her ribbon was not to be commercialized. So the decision was made to go with another colour and pink was chosen. Charlotte Haley’s peach ribbon was eclipsed by the PR machine of the pink ribbon which has now become a recognized symbol for breast cancer. The pink ribbon has proliferated. Attaching it to a product enhances the image of the manufacturer, retailer or sponsor. They make money mostly for themselves and express very little interest in what happens to the small portion that goes to breast cancer agencies. (See more at Profits in Pink.)

Should I buy this pink ribbon product? Who benefits from your purchase?

How much money goes towards breast cancer programs and services? (Is it a proportion of the sale price? If so, what proportion? Or does the manufacturer/retailer donate a fixed amount for each sale?) What kind of product is involved? (Cosmetics may contain carcinogens or potential carcinogens. Ditto for household cleaning products.) What kind of research will be supported? Is the money going to a foundation that funds programs in other communities, but not yours? Will the donation swell the amount going to research into detection and treatment while research into the causes of breast cancer is neglected?

Why is BCAQc skeptical of pink ribbon causes?

Breast cancer has become the darling of corporate Canada. From yogurt lids to motor vehicles, the pink breast cancer 'awareness' ribbon is showing up on more and more products. Breast cancer is an easy disease to market since everyone loves to think about, talk about, and look at breasts. Marketing it is even easier when it is seen as a feminist issue — without the politics.

What exactly is breast cancer cause marketing? Tri-Marketing, an on-line Canadian marketing and publicity firm, defines cause marketing as "a partnership between a for-profit company and a non-profit organization which increases the company's sales while raising money and visibility for the cause."1 Note that, in almost all breast cancer cause marketing campaigns, it is the consumers' money that raises funds for the cause, not the corporation. The corporation uses the pink ribbon to grab consumers' attention and money while attracting a little more visibility for the cause.

Clearly, money is being made for breast cancer research. But most of this money is directed to already wealthy organizations; organizations known to be conservative in their approach to breast cancer issues and often with troubling ties to major pharmaceutical companies and/or corporations whose products contribute to the incidence of breast cancer.


This is just a peek behind the pink façade but it reveals a plethora of pink ribbon blues. The current context of breast cancer cause marketing in Canada is lacking in transparency, accountability, a feminist agenda and a public health perspective. Corporate interests are 'pinkwashing' away the political issues that become clear with a little probing. Unfortunately our purchases cannot sweep away the disease, no matter what breast cancer cause marketing would have us believe. What we can do:

Get informed. Find out more about breast cancer issues and research.

Ask critical questions. Email or telephone a corporation involved in breast cancer cause marketing and ask basic questions about what they contribute, to whom and why.

Challenge the company to make an informed and private donation that will benefit an issue that is important to the members of the corporation, rather than putting a pink ribbon on a product to increase sales.

Talk to your friends. If you know someone who is interested in breast cancer issues, spread the word about the problems with breast cancer cause marketing.

Support your cause. Instead of giving to questionable corporations for an unknown and distant breast cancer effort, why not donate directly to a research project or breast cancer organization that you think is important and has meaning to you?

Inform your Breast Cancer Foundation. If you think your breast cancer foundation is too heavily involved with questionable corporate cause marketing, tell them.

Get involved. Contact Breast Cancer Action Montreal (www.acsqc.ca) for ways to make a difference.

What does BCAQc think about the various fundraising runs/walks for breast cancer?

Before you support a fundraising event, either by participating yourself or by sponsoring someone else, ask where the money is going. This means not only how much of the money is going to the cause, but also what kinds of programs or research are being supported. If an adequate answer is not forthcoming, or if you don’t like the answer, BCAQc suggests you make a donation directly to an organization whose work you support.