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Pink Ribbons & the Mother of all Causes Print E-mail
By Matthew Hanley   
Thursday, 07 April 2011

Gayle Sulik has a bone to pick with what she calls our pink “breast cancer culture.” In her book Pink Ribbon Blues, she hammers away at the forces which perpetuate a manipulative and ineffective “awareness” campaign. The consumerism promoted in the name of a cure has parlayed the terrifying prospect of a dreaded disease into a “brand” and “industry.” With overtly sentimental appeals, all manner of pink products and services are sold. Races are run and mammograms are recommended. But all of this has done virtually nothing to lower the incidence of breast cancer.

Screening can help save lives, of course, but it also subjects at least five times as many women to intense treatments or surgeries that turn out to be unnecessary – since all tumors are treated as though they are malignant even if many are later discovered to be benign. But consumers who buy pink can still feel good about supporting what she disparages as “the mother of all causes.” For retailers and pharmaceutical giants, medical service providers and breast cancer organizations, business is good even if the results, as measured by less breast cancer, are not. Better prevention, not more pink, is what we really need.

Here Sulik makes a truly valuable contribution. Nonetheless, her book suffers from such a serious blind spot that it must be deemed profoundly inadequate for the women she so passionately seeks to enlighten. Her misdiagnosis lies, ironically, in labeling breast cancer as “the mother of all causes.” 

Had she dug deeper, she would have had to acknowledge a “cause” far more alluring and destructive – a “cause” which has contributed mightily to the tremendous rise in breast cancer over the past several decades: the “liberation” promised by the sexual revolution. This alleged “liberation” requires the radical disruption of natural biological processes which in turn imperil breast tissue, so it can only be out of deference to that supreme cause that she utterly fails to specify, let alone stress, three of the most protective things a woman can do to reduce breast cancer risk: have children earlier in life, refrain from artificial contraception, and avoid induced abortions.

These omissions – by an author otherwise adamant about improving prevention – are a great disservice to her readers, many of whom are likely already primed and ready for a critical look at the whole pink “brand.” One might even feel sorry for Sulik herself, as she tells us that her book was ten years in the making. After so much study and reflection, being unfamiliar with or dismissive of these important risk factors only undermines her role as challenger of the status quo in the name of women’s health.


        The Pope in pink (rose, actually) for Laetare Sunday, although not for the cure.”

Her readers might like to know the following. Waiting until later in life (i.e. after age thirty) to have a first child is a risk factor, but the flip side is also true; UCLA’s Dr. Miriam Grossman, drawing on the scientific literature, put it thus: “if you start your family early, have three kids and nurse them each for two years, you’ve decreased your risk by about 54 percent.”

The Mayo Clinic reports that a woman who takes contraceptives before her first full-term pregnancy stands a 44 percent greater chance of getting breast cancer prior to menopause, compared with those who don’t take them before giving birth. Taking them for four of more years prior to first full-term pregnancy raises risk higher still – to 52 percent. Abortion raises the risk of breast cancer by approximately 30 percent. Electing to have an abortion before one’s first full-term pregnancy is even riskier. 

Sulik clearly wants less breast cancer. But like the pink industry she critiques, she just doesn’t want to highlight these factors; in over three hundred pages, she never attempts to explain breast physiology in terms that would help the reader understand how these factors relate to breast cancer. How many women, I wonder, would reconsider such courses of action if these risks were common knowledge?

Oxford University scientists deny that there is a connection between abortion and breast cancer, having conducted a shoddy “re-evaluation” of existing studies several years ago (Oxford University Press published Sulik’s book). The Susan G. Komen Foundation uses that contorted Oxford “study” as cover while pushing the pink brand – and funding Planned Parenthood. (Catholic bishops have discouraged supporting Komen for this reason). By providing abortion and doling out contraceptives, they virtually ensure that the breast cancer epidemic will persist, not abate. Sulik, who has a nose for the rotten placement of profits ahead of prevention, detects no foul odor here.

Hell supposedly hath no fury like a woman scorned. Yet there seems precious little fury that pink groups such as Komen, which court the sympathies of women for a living, along with the National Cancer Institute and virtually every major medical authority and journal, fail to broadcast or even deliberately mislead women about these major risk factors. 

This lack of outrage might be explained in part by an endemic lack of awareness, the same kind of which leads many to believe that the Church is opposed to science and even anti-woman. (This is the Church, I might add, founded by the God who, as John Paul II put it, “actively seeks out and lovingly awaits” every woman and man – even when we are not aware of it).

We need more awareness that the worlds of science, commerce, and popular culture – afraid to relate what science has discovered – cannot be stirred to speak up for women in ways that might threaten the real mother of all causes today. Let the next pink ribbon we see remind us.  

Matthew Hanley is, with Jokin de Irala, M.D., the author of Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, available now from the National Catholic Bioethics Center.


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Comments (15)Add Comment
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written by Patrick, April 07, 2011
Interesting article, but could you perhaps provide more references for evidence of contraceptive use and abortion increasing risk of breast cancer? There is a link to the study about having children early, and a Mayo clinic study is mentioned regarding contraceptive use (any link for that?), but nothing for abortion. I know this is not a formal scientific paper and that you are mainly trying to make an ethical point, but I for one would be interesting in digging a little deeper here as I had never heard of any of these connections to breast cancer, although they are hardly counterintuitive.
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written by Louise, April 07, 2011
Patrick,

Since I have read and agreed to the terms of usage, I can't give you the website address of a site dedicated to these topics, but if you do a Goggle search for "abortion, breast cancer", you will be richly rewarded.
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written by Matt, April 07, 2011

Thank you, Louise, for your helpful reply...

Patrick: As you keep digging, you might also look up Dr. Joel Brind and Dr. Angela Lanfranchi…they have done work in this area and have made helpful resources available, which should help answer some of your questions...Matt
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written by Bill, April 07, 2011
This is well done, Mr. Hanley. The problem is subtle. A professional woman will admit that she was married for x years before her first child was born. This was deliberate as the cost and time constraints of getting her M.D. came first. She admits she took a gamble vis a vis cancer but she wanted to be a doctor and a very good doctor she became. She is a Catholic, She is in the pro-life movement. She exists. In order to not be a hypocrite, she focuses on the effects of abortion and leaves the contraception issue to others.Other than being in the pro-life movement, she told me that she is very typical of female professionals today.
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written by Finola, April 07, 2011
In reply to Bill's comment. If I am interpreting your comment correctly, Bill, you are implying that this Catholic doctor was using artificial contraception to delay pregnancy? I don't know why she felt the need to do that when there is a perfectly Church approved method to postpone pregnancy called Natural Family Planning. This is completely healthy, 99% effective and very easy to learn. A Catholic doctor in the pro life movement is in a perfect position to educate women about the benefits of using natural methods to postpone pregnancy, live in good conscience with what the CC teaches, and not have to be a hypocrite. Dr Mary Martin who opened up an NFP only practice in Oklahoma City and promotes the Billings Ovulation Method is one such pro life doctor who changed her mind about OCP's after her priest challenged her to prove that oral contraceptives were not abortifacients. She has never looked back and has a thriving OB/GYN practice.
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written by Sally, April 07, 2011
Speaking as a breast cancer survivor who had and nursed 5 children and STILL had Stage II breast cancer by age 36, can I just point out that we should not jump to conclusions or generalize about people's lives?
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written by Sue B, April 08, 2011
Well done on an interesting and informative article, it is so difficult to get people to take on board that as well as being wrong abortion and contraception have long term damaging concequences.I do have to point out though that the breast awareness campaign does save lives in that it does encourage people to check lumps and go for mammograms, when my Mum had breast cancer (having had children in her 20's whom she breastfed and always following church teaching) she Knew to go to the doctor straight away and make sure things were sorted out. Equally because of my family history plus the fact that I had my first child at 31 (I didn't meet my husband until I was 30) I made a fuss about having a mammogram when I was 43 -and a good job I did! I was diagnosed with DCIS an early form of breast cancer which the excellent team at my local hospital sorted out quickly and efficiently. Oh and this was after 11 years worth of breastfeeding. My point is that while I agree wholeheartedly that prevention is better than cure and we need the medical profession and the general public to learn about and understand the links between abortion,contraception and breast cancer there is still a need to educate women to check for lumps, go for mammograms and get medical help at the first sign of trouble.
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written by Erika Marie, April 08, 2011
Excellent! I have not read Pink Ribbon Blues but I've heard of her and what she thinks about the whole 'pink' thing and wholeheartedly agree that it's become more of a commercial than a 'cause'. Unless of course the cause is to get people to buy something. I really appreciate what you did by going a step further as I feel these causes, not just the breast cancer one, that aim to raise $ for 'awareness' and 'research' fall tragically short of the point--common sense prevention. The problem of course is that no one wants to stop and think about abortion or contraception possibly adding to this breast cancer epidemic or any other hormonally-based cancer/disease. The world acknowledges that 'reckless sex' can lead to cervical cancer and such but stops short at suggesting that people practice self-control and choose abstinence...instead 'safe sex' and injecting girls (and now boys) with a vaccine are the world's solution.
One critique: You mentioned the abortion and contraception links but you yourself hit a blind spot by failing to mention breastfeeding's magical breast cancer prevention powers. I can't link anything here but there's a wealth of information about this that's worth looking into. In my opinion, I feel the sexual revolution has also played a huge role in persuading women to forgo breastfeeding. If you can understand the adverse effects of synthetic hormonal drugs in a woman's body over time or the devastating effects an abrupt end to a pregnancy can have on a woman's body, it's easy to think about what the possible negative effects of ignoring breasts full of milk for a bottle of convenient formula could have on the body parts that our society hold so dear.
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written by Matt, April 08, 2011
Sally: you raise a good point. It is possible that someone who never takes any of these risks will still develop breast cancer -- just as it is possible that someone who takes all of these risks will not get breast cancer.

Erika: you're right about breastfeeding. thanks for highlighting it. That's one reason I chose that quote from Dr. Grossman, which refers to nursing / breastfeeding.
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written by Bill, April 08, 2011
Thank you for your thoughtful and informative comments, Finola. You and I agree, of course, but my point was to explain that this woman, as do others, had a goal which was the sine qua non of her life at that point and she could not let ANYONE interfere with or delay it. Some women do not feel that the fact a method utilizes abortifacients rules it out. The point is they must achieve their GOAL. Our society encourages this attitude.
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written by Erika Marie, April 11, 2011
Matt, I did not think my comment went through and just came back to try again. Yes I did see that one mention of the breastfeeding and thank you for that, maybe you could include more information about that point when you write another article like this.
I agree with what some of the others are saying about not generalizing but we have to remember that that is exactly what 'risk factors' and 'prevention factors' are--generalizations based on whatever data the statistics are generally based on. ;)
It's like seatbelts, generally they save more lives when used properly. There is nothing unethical about seatbelts and they don't cause any adverse side effects when wearing them. Still, we all know stories of when, during a crash, despite the statistics the seatbelt did not work as intended. But we all probably still wear seat belts and drive as safely as we can in order to prevent a possible situation. So we do what we can to avoid breast cancer and other diseases and cancers naturally and ethically, and the rest is up to God and we pray that we can embrace whatever suffering and joy He gives us.
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written by Emina Melonic, April 13, 2011
Thank you so much for writing this, Mr. Hanley. Well said. And yes, in many ways, any woman can be afflicted by breast cancer for many different reasons (poor diet, high levels of stress, etc) but what you write about is very important: the connection between birth controll pills, abortions and breast cancer. This is something, which society is turning away from.
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written by Cheryl S., May 25, 2011
WOW, I didn't have any of those risk factors you so nicely listed. Never had an abortion, my first child was at age 19 AND I never used birth control pills. I'm a happy, well adjusted, low-stress person who takes care of herself, eats healthy and exercises. So please refrain from playing the blame game to those of us who did everything right and still have breast cancer.
Triple Negative stage 2, 2 cm tumor, neg. nodes.
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written by KT, May 25, 2011
Shame on you for putting false information out there. Any supposed link between abortion/birth control and cancer has never been proven. But here you go trying to blame women for causing their own cancer. This is more than misguided, it's damaging.
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written by Felicia, May 25, 2011
This review does nothing to address the issues discussed in "Pink Rubbon Blues" - namely the commercialization of all things pink under the guise of gaining awareness. Suluk's point is that all the pink vacuum cleaners, socks and M&Ms in the world will NOT prevent breast cancer. Races are nice, but where does the money for research go - towards more treatment drugs or towards finding a cure so no one is ever lost to this disease again? Survivors get that - whether we're done with treatment or battling mets/Stage IV.

BC is a GENETIC disease. Blaming the victims for getting it is just.plain.stupid.

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