Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health Hardcover – Oct 30 2010
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"Treads an interesting middle ground between the academic and the journalistic as she analyzes giant hunks of information and opinion, and also interviews patients to illustrate her points." --Abigail Zuger,M.D., New York Times
"In this provocative and eye-opening critique, medical sociologist Gayle Sulik, Ph.D., makes the case that breast cancer culture is increasingly frivolous and commercialized-with patients paying the price." --Catherine Guthrie, Better Homes and Gardens
"Given the pink ribbon's symbolic success, what's wrong with it? Sulik argues that pink ribbon culture focuses attention on the wrong things and does it in a way that is not really contributing to progress toward preventing and curing cancer. It buries medical controversies, ignores environmental causes of cancer and insurance problems, and does not increase access to treatment for underserved populations. Most of all, she is critical of the collusion of pink ribbon culture with what has become a multibillion-dollar cancer industry. I highly recommend Pink Ribbon Blues to anyone interested in medical issues, the social construction of patienthood, gender, and the body." --Judith Lorber, Gender & Society
"Gayle Sulik takes us behind the pink curtain to a peculiar culture where sentimentality takes the place of scientific evidence, personal transcendence fills in for political action, and lofty platitudes replace actionable goals. Pink Ribbon Blues is the Frommer's travel guide to the country of breast cancer." --Sandra Steingraber, author, Living Downstream: An Ecologist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment
"Gayle Sulik has written an excellent book that sheds new light on the construction and implications of breast cancer culture in American society. Her extensive research and thought-provoking analysis challenge current beliefs of what breast cancer means for diagnosed women, survivors, and advocates. This book is a must-read for all players in the breast cancer culture and anyone interested in women's health."--Kathy Charmaz, Professor of Sociology, Sonoma State University
"In Pink Ribbon Blues, Gayle Sulik has brought sociological, feminist and media theory together for a deep and broad analysis of the consumer world of breast cancer. She has complimented all of that with a deeply humane and personal engagement with the women who are living with breast cancer in a world where the pink ribbon culture constantly needs disruption and questioning. BRAVO!!!!!"--Janet Gray, Director, Program in Science, Technology and Society, Vassar College; Board Member, Breast Cancer Fund
"In this thoughtful, eye-opening and searing examination of the pinking of breast cancer, Sulik shows how pink culture lurches from selflessness to selfishness, giving new meaning to the ferocity of survivors and she-roes."--Devra Davis, National Book Award Finalist, author of Disconnect: The Truth about Cell Phone Radiation and Your Health (2010), and The Secret History of the War on Cancer (2009), Founder, Environmental Health Trust, and Visiting Professor, Georgetown University
"It's about time! We've been needing this book - a smart, critical, thoughtful analysis of pink ribbon culture and the damage it is doing. Thank you Gayle Sulik!"--Barbara Katz Rothman, Professor of Sociology at the City University of NY, most recent book, with Wendy Simonds, Laboring On
"Provocative..." --Library Journal
"Breast Cancer Awareness Month has become a distracting sideshow, a situation that sociologist Gayle A. Sulik explores in compelling depth in her new book, Pink Ribbon Blues."
--Katherine Russell Rich, Slate
"You may never think pink again about breast cancer after reading Sulik's sobering and lucid critique of what she calls 'pink culture'... Sulik's call to 'take a road less pink' demands to be heard." --Publishers Weekly
"Many of [Sulik's] insights are striking and she pulls together a wealth of historical material and data... Recommended." --Choice
"This is the first book to provide a comprehensive ethnographic analysis of breast cancer culture in American society. It presents a thought-provoking and probing argument against the industry of awareness-raising and describes real ways to help breast cancer patients and their families. This book will be valuable for all those interested in breast cancer management and in women's health." -- Anticancer Research
"For Sulik, it is clearly time to 'rethink pink.' Well-written and extremely well researched, Pink Ribbon Blues demonstrates how pink consumption has transformed breast cancer from a stigmatized disease and individual tragedy to a market-driven industry of survivorship. Using a broad interdisciplinary approach and a range of examples, personal stories, and health statistics, Sulik traces the linkages between the disease and the 'pink culture' that has arisen around it. As well as being of interest to those with breast cancer this book would be useful for both academic and clinical audiences, in addition to serving as an excellent discussion text for courses in medical sociology and anthropology."
- Sukari Ivester, Sociology of Health and Illness
About the Author
Gayle A. Sulik is a medical sociologist and Assistant Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at Texas Woman's University.
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Now, our brave author seeks to separate well-grounded hope from misleading hope. And, says Sulik, "The goal to eradicate breast cancer is not being realized." (p. 9.) Further, the advantages to screening have been exaggerated. (p. 20.)
My somewhat paranoid furniture stripper said that no one really wants to cure cancer because then the money would be gone. He is correct about the money being gone. Imagine, if a vaccine were created to prevent cancer or an inexpensive injection to cure cancer were developed, how many folks would be off their feed. There would no longer be a need for expensive research, oncologists, medications, treatments or miscellaneous paraphernalia. "The industry that benefits from increased use of mammography and pharmaceuticals is at the core of what has become pink ribbon culture." (p. 210.)
The author contends that exposure to common chemicals in the environment may contribute to high incidence of breast cancer (p. 60.) while the pink ribbon culture emphasizes the courageous survivor.
Again, many of the largest corporate donors to the pink culture derive huge profits from the treatment end of the business. This includes hardware and pharmaceuticals, and so forth...
Yet, breast cancer rates have risen (dramatically in my opinion) since 1940 (p. 159.) And, there is still no sure cure or prevention method.
Proper treatment and "cure" of the disease are essential.
However, to get back to my outspoken furniture stripper, this is not my priority. I have a wife and two daughters. I do not want them to be survivors. I want them to never contract the disease. I want to know what causes breast cancer. How can it be prevented? Can an effective vaccine be developed? How are U.S. cancer rates comparing with, say Germany?
I know there are geographic cancer hotspots. I know there are some buildings that produce cancer in their employees and at a high percentage rate. I know there are no serious investigations into these issues. I want to know the cause and potential methods to prevent all forms of cancer and the pink culture, that I have seen, has not been working in this arena. I do not want to see any more pink backhoes.
Sulik's books should be required reading.
Readers may also be interested in the "No Family History" by Sabrina McCormick.
I've read critiques of many of the issues she lists, but never in such a comprehensive and well-researched unit. I started reading the book still bothered by my lack of verbal ammunition to articulate my gut dislike of the industry of breast cancer awareness, but I've come away with an arsenal. I especially liked a section of the last chapter, "Rethinking Pink Ribbon Culture," that deals with the question of whether the ends justify the means regarding the problematic (to put it mildly) nature of some breast cancer awareness campaigns.
I'd highly recommend this book to anybody who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, or knows anyone who has.
After reading "Pink Ribbon Blues," I think that breast cancer patients must feel exactly the opposite. If pink buckets of fried chicken and pink Barbie dolls are emblematic of your disease, how bad can it be, really? We are not recognizing their suffering if we think we can merely "shop for a cure", treating ourselves to a new pair of shoes in the name of support. I'll take that new pink designer tshirt, but I don't want to see anyone's mastectomy scar.
Sulik's book presents many aspects of the pink ribbon culture including the profits of the drug companies, the sexualiation of breast cancer, and the real statistics on cure rates. I was interested to read the details of DCIS and how it is classified and treated as cancer, which pollutes the stats of more serious forms of breast cancer, making the cure rate appear higher.
I encourage others to read this book, not only for the well-reasoned arguments and comprehensive research presented, but also because it forces us to face the truth of what breast cancer patients endure. And it's definitely not pink.
This book is long on description. I learned quite a bit about the various types of breast cancers and their relative rates of incidence. I also learned about the history of the various treatments developed over the past 30-40 years, and how those treatments have or haven't improved -- the results are mixed and subject to interpretation -- survival chances for women. Finally, I learned about the history of the breast cancer awareness movement and its troubled relationships with corporate funders and manufacturers (i.e., Big Pharma). All of this was presented in roughly the first half of the book.
Meanwhile, I was frustrated by the attempts of the author to analyze 'pink ribbon culture.' I do get that there's something unique about breast cancer that warrants a gender lens, but rather than situating pink ribbon culture into a feminist critique of culture more generally, the author tries to make a case that there's something uniquely insidious about a breast cancer culture that silences women's voices and limits their options. Women have been dealing with that for a long time in the home and the workplace; why should it surprise anyone that they confront it in the hospitals and doctors' offices? Yes, they have to deal with constraining and conflicting gender expectations, but they do that already, even in the best of health. And they are at least partly complicit in supporting this culture. After all, breast enhancement surgeries are among the most popular cosmetic procedures, and their popularity among women continues to rise.
The second half of the book is organized around the exploration of illustrative case material. The point I think the author was trying to make was that many women with breast cancer resist the model of the 'she-ro' presented to them by the culture, and that without a culture that validated and supported their experiences, this resistance made their lives and ordeals more difficult than they otherwise would have been. Fair enough. But how is that any different from *ANY OTHER* debilitating illness or condition or situation that women contend with? I kept looking for the angle that the breast cancer story is somehow different or unique from what women face more generally. Women have always had it harder than men. The takeaway seems to be that if we should expect to see true female empowerment anywhere in society, we should see it here, but we don't. The big charities and movement organizations sold out the grassroots by cozying up to partners with deep pockets -- partners who don't have women's interests at heart because they're not only profiting off the disease (e.g., by selling lucrative pharmaceuticals and expensive mammography units) but also often profiting off the products (i.e., chemicals, etc.) and the environmental conditions that increase the incidence of the disease in the first place. From this critical perspective, 'pink ribbon culture' serves to distract and co-opt the general public. And that's an important takeaway.
So in general, I'm glad I read this book, and I would encourage others to do the same, but I can't help but feel like it over-promised and under-delivered. The author's strongest contributions come from her big-picture, historical review in the first half. Her attempt in the second half to introduce individual case histories to illustrate her points fell a little flat for me. I realize, however, that that's precisely what many readers respond to the most powerfully. They want to see their own lives and stories -- or those of their loved ones -- represented in the pages, so I understand why the author wanted to include them, and why the editor/publisher allowed them to be included. I personally found them to be less insightful than I'd wanted them to be; they ended up taking away from what came before, not adding to it.
I close this review by expressing my biggest frustration. The author was not shy about identifying 'the bad guys', but I kept waiting for her to identify 'the good guys' -- those organizations most strongly committed to doing breast cancer awareness, research, and treatment in a way that truly empowers and respects all women. I'm still left to wonder whether there are any national or local breast cancer organizations that are 'doing it right'. It would be nice to direct our support toward them and away from the others.
This is a brilliant book that looks at the real issues around breast cancer. Gayle Sulik skilfully analyses the pinkwashing of corporations who manufacture products that may in fact be contributing to breast cancer, who are manipulating the goodwill of millions of US citizens who believe that by supporting pink products they are helping to find that all elusive 'cure' for breast cancer. But that prevention isn't on any agendas.
She is not afraid to look at the difficult subjects, like the questions about the effectiveness of mammography, the possibility of over-treatment due to increased screening, the pharmaceutical industry that profits from the drugs we use to treat breast cancer: 'The industry that benefits from the increased use of mammography and pharmaceuticals is at the core of what has become pink ribbon culture.' (p 210)
Gayle Sulik also looks at the whole cheerful culture of breast cancer. The upbeat message of breast cancer survivorship., and the 'normalization' of the disease, 'specifically the suppression of any feelings that might destablize upbeat social interaction.' (p 237) This culture that promotes so much positive demands on women, and yet suggests 'that the women who do not survive are not optimistic enough.' (p 243)
In chapter eight she refers to the 'terrible stories' of breast cancer. The women, like Audre Lorde, who wrote about their experiences with anger and honesty. That the cheerfulness as the way to survive 'succeeds in blaming the diagnosed for getting cancer in the first place, limiting women's personal expression to sanctioned cultural scripts.' (p342) That breast cancer patients only have a few words to express our experiences, and that we are forced into the role of 'triumphant survivor'. And that society looks away 'from what might be causing breast cancer, the environmental factors, ignoring the profit in medical system', with no 'real investment' in prevention. (p 342)
In the final chapter Gayle Sulik talks about the stereotypes that are reinforced for women: breasts and pink. And that pink ribbon products trivialise and ignore the reality of breast cancer whilst 'degrading women and putting them in their place.' (p372)
I was diagnosed with breast cancer, in the UK, in 2007. I have always found the pink ribbon culture to be too cheerful for my liking. And no, I'm not a survivor, I'm not better or different than the thousands of women who die of breast cancer, just lucky - so far. Let's hope this book can finally start to change the tide of pink so that we start to see a future that seriously looks at prevention, the environmental links to breast cancer, and is really free of the fear of breast cancer for all women.
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