Pink Ribbons & the Mother of all Causes

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’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.