Last week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that "the fight against breast cancer," as waged by groups like Susan G. Komen for Cure, "is unifying and completely uncontroversial."
Douthat contrasted Komen with Planned Parenthood, the group that the foundation had notoriously defunded days earlier. Unlike the abortion services Planned Parenthood provides, Douthat argued, Komen's breast-cancer work brings us all together.
But Douthat is wrong about that: Komen is controversial. And the reasons why have a lot to do with the link between human health and the environment.
Komen is the 800-pound, pink-ribboned gorilla in discussions of breast cancer. The 30-year-old organization and its affiliates in more than 120 U.S. cities sponsor the ubiquitous Races for the Cure, which raise the bulk of the group's $400 million-plus in annual revenue. Komen also brands everything from cosmetics to pro-football uniforms and the month of October, when even Point State Park's fountain turns pink for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Komen largely defines how we talk about the disease. "The pinking of America has become a multibillion-dollar business, a marketing, merchandising and fund-raising opportunity that is almost unrivaled in scope," according to an October 2011 Times article.
But critics contend we're not getting much bang for all those bucks. Breast cancer still strikes about 225,000 women a year and kills 40,000; one in eight women will get the disease. And breast cancer remains 20 percent more common than it was when the Komen foundation was created.
That's not all Komen's fault, of course. But the group's strategy for confronting cancer is the same mainstream approach critics say isn't working: early and frequent mammogram screenings, and treatment for cancer victims. Meanwhile, national groups like Breast Cancer Action have long criticized Komen for paying too little attention to what causes cancer.
Recently, for instance, a Komen-funded study downplayed environmental links to breast cancer — even to the extent of contradicting itself.
True, Breast Cancer and the Environment, released in December by the Institute of Medicine, emphasizes well-known risks like hormone-replacement therapy and unnecessary mammograms.
But when it comes to chemicals in everyday consumer goods, the report lowers the red flag. Take BPA, found in many plastics and the lining of metal cans. A chemical that mimics hormones, it's linked to cancer in animal studies, and can cause cellular changes at extremely low doses — doses much lower than most people already experience.
Notes Jeanne Rizzo, head of the Breast Cancer Fund, "the report finds that ... BPA is a ‘biologically plausible hazard,' but says that the evidence does not necessarily warrant individual action to avoid the chemical." Environmentalists tout a precautionary approach to chemicals, meaning they should be proved safe before they're marketed; the report, by contrast, merely recommends more study of existing chemicals. And environmental toxins remain absent from the Komen website's list of breast-cancer risk factors.
This bias isn't new: In 2000, Komen lobbied to weaken the federal Breast Cancer and Environmental Health Act.
Critics note Komen's political and corporate ties. The group's right-wing connections — founder and CEO Nancy Brinker is a major Republican fundraiser and was President George W. Bush's ambassador to Hungary — have been highlighted by the Planned Parenthood feud. Meanwhile, Komen's corporate partners include: pharmaceutical giants like AstraZeneca (which has roots in pesticide manufacturing); chemical manufacturers like 3M and Georgia Pacific; and cosmetics firms, like Redken, whose products have also generated health concerns.
Komen spends only about 20 percent of its budget on research and — like the rest of the cancer establishment — very little of that explores environmental causes of cancer.
"That kind of research is at the very bottom of [Komen's] list of priorities," says Samantha King, author of the 2008 book Pink Ribbons, Inc., a critique of breast-cancer culture recently adapted into a feature-length documentary. "They are and they have been very dependent on corporate sponsorships. ... They're not going to enjoy those partnerships if they place a higher priority on environmental research."