Major sports should drop the pink ribbon campaign

Should sports leagues be connecting themselves with the pink ribbon?

Should sports leagues be connecting themselves with the pink ribbon?

It’s November. And that means the pink that is awash in sports in October is finally put away. That’s not my sentiment, but that of many breast cancer suffers and survivors. Several breast cancer advocates say the “Pink Ribbon” campaign, adopted by the NFL, NCAA football, and even some high school football teams, makes it appear as if screenings are a panacea for the disease.

However, several studies say that mammograms are more likely to lead to false positives, unnecessary treatments and even unneeded surgeries, particularly in young women. According to Peggy Orenstein, a breast cancer survivor who wrote about “Our Feel Good War on Cancer” in New York Times magazine in April of 2013, breast cancer focus should be on research and the reasons for metastasis, not screening.

Breast cancer advocates are particularly concerned about the detection of ductal carcinoma in situ (D.C.I.S.) particularly in women under 50. According to Laura Esserman, director of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center at the University of California, San Francisco, D.C.I.S. should be treated as a risk factor and not as a cancerous lesion.

“For many D.C.I.S. lesions, there is only a 5 percent chance of invasive cancer developing over 10 years,” Esserman said in Orenstein’s article. “That’s like the average risk of a 62-year-old. We don’t do heart surgery when someone comes in with high cholesterol. What are we doing to these people?”

Here is what Orenstein writes about D.C.I.S. diagnosis and subsequent surgeries.

“In this country, the huge jump in D.C.I.S. diagnoses potentially transforms some 50,000 healthy people a year into ‘cancer survivors’ and contributes to the larger sense that breast cancer is ‘everywhere,’ happening to ‘everyone.’ That, in turn, stokes women’s anxiety about their personal vulnerability, increasing demand for screening — which, inevitably, results in even more diagnoses of D.C.I.S. Meanwhile, D.C.I.S. patients themselves are subject to the pain, mutilation, side effects and psychological trauma of anyone with cancer and may never think of themselves as fully healthy again.”

The pink ribbon campaign contributes to this hysteria with its emphasis on screening. Some researchers contend that increased breast cancer survival is due to better treatment and not early detection through screening. In fact, most of the lethal breast cancers go largely undetected by screenings.

So why does the NFL drape their coaches and players in pick hats, cleats and towels? Because the ribbon campaign is a magnet for corporate donations, with over 200 large companies signed up. Some of them are pharmaceutical companies that benefit from the sale of breast cancer treatment drugs. The NFL also gets the feel-good shine from being involved in what’s, on its surface, a worthy cause.

The Susan B Konen foundation is a major force behind the pink ribbons, but they spend more money on keeping their public relations campaign going, rather than devoting a large percentage of funds to research.

According to Orenstein, “only 16 percent of the $472 million raised in 2011, the most recent year for which financial reports are available, went toward research. At $75 million, that’s still enough to give credence to the claim that Komen has been involved in every major breast-cancer breakthrough for the past 29 years. Still, the sum is dwarfed by the $231 million the foundation spent on education and screening.”

Advocates like Ann Silberman, a terminal cancer patient, would be fine with the pink ribbon campaign as long as they depicted disease accurately and devoted more money towards a cure. If you want to know how damaging the pink ribbon campaign can be and how many profiteer from it, check out her blog, “Breast Cancer? … but doctor I hate pink!”

“All that awareness terminology isn’t about us,” Silberman said. “It’s about surviving, and we’re not going to survive. We’re going to get sick. We’re going to lose parts of our livers. We’re going to be on oxygen. We’re going to die. It’s not pretty, and it’s not hopeful. People want to believe in ‘the cure,’ and they want to believe that cure is early detection. But you know what? It’s just not true.”

There are far more appropriate campaigns for football organizations like the NFL and the NCAA to adopt. How about awareness about inadequate education in African American neighborhoods, where the NFL gets most of its players? How about devoting a month to domestic violence awareness, which is far more prevalent than breast cancer, is an issue in football right now, and is greatly misunderstood?

The NFL and the NCAA can do better.

Kevin Lynch

Kevin Lynch is in his 27th season covering the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers and Bay Area sports. He also is a guest radio host and pregame 49ers host on KNBR-AM San Francisco - the flagship station for the 49ers, San Francisco Giants, and Stanford football and basketball. Working mainly for sfgate.com, the San Francisco Chronicle's web site, Lynch is expanding into sports' biggest questions and hottest debates such as - LBGTQ acceptance, athlete criminality, the ethics of performance-enhancing drugs, marijuana, locker room culture, sports and gender, sports and sex, sports and money, sports and race, sports and social change and many other issues. He has written editorials on LBGTQ resistance in sports for the Chronicle and has appeared on KQED radio, Comcast Sports Bay Area and ESPN's Outside the Lines to talk about a variety of sports topics. He completed a Master's in Sociology at San Jose State in 2015, which included a thesis on LBGtT Resistant Attitudes and Behaviors in Sports.

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