Friday, October 1, 2010

"Breast Cancer Awareness Month" is obscene

These words started as a visceral response to a friend who coined "The One-Boobed Systyrs of the Apocalypse." She's still fighting.

I remember the first breast I saw no longer attached to the body it once helped define. I had seen body parts in various forms before, but this one was fresh. A flap of sallow skin with a wizened nipple defining it, a long trail of fibrous fatty tissue trailing off the slab.

The pathologist, smoking as he dictated, handled the breast like a butcher handles meat about to be weighed, though not as kindly.

The breast had been part of a man who probably did not survive his bout with breast cancer. Most people back then did not fare well, and men fared worse than women.

Incidences of breast cancer change in populations as people migrate from one area of the world to another, suggesting that environmental factors contribute to this disease. There is a continuing effort at the NIEHS to identify these environmental factors and the role that exposures to specific chemicals could play in this disease.

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH

I shaved my mother's head when the cancer recurred--bony metastases in her skull made the shaving more difficult. She walked like a marionette with tangled strings the weeks before she died. In a radiology reading room, we'd call them "goobers." Goobers on the brain.

Unless it was one of our mothers, our sisters, our daughters--then they were metastases.


Since 1985, Zeneca Pharmaceuticals has been the sole funder of October's National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM). Zeneca has promoted a blame-the-victim strategy to explain away escalating breast cancer rates, which ignores the role of avoidable carcinogens. Zeneca's parent company, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), is one of the world's largest manufacturers of petrochemical and chlorinated [organic] products -- including the plastic ingredient, vinyl chloride -- which has been directly linked to breast cancer, and the pesticide Acetochlor.

In addition, Zeneca is the sole manufacturer of Tamoxifen, the world's top-selling cancer drug used for breast cancer. In return for funding the "awareness" campaign, ICI/Zeneca has control and veto power over every poster, pamphlet and commercial produced by NBCAM.

" A decade-old multi-million dollar deal between National Breast Cancer Awareness Month sponsors and Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) has produced reckless misinformation on breast cancer," said Dr. Epstein.

The media focuses on the strength of cancer survivors, and I have seen tremendously strong women live and die graciously through months and years of chemotherapy and radiation and surgery. The magazines will show glossy pictures of proud women, and these things matter, of course. Avon will sell "Kiss Goodbye to Breast Cancer Lipsticks," Mars, Inc., will sell you pink and white M&M's, and General Electric will sell you a Senographe 2000D mammographer.

They do not show a mother cowering in her bathroom, her bald head bare, blood all over the toilet from a nosebleed that will not stop, her teen-age son standing awkwardly, bravely holding her head.

They do not show the vomiting, the pain, the fear. They do not show a mother with her arm in a machine trying to squish out the fluid building up from lymphedema. They do not show the bony protuberances on a skull, the smell of dying cells.

They do not show a child wiping her mother clean because she is too proud to use a bedpan and too weak to use a toilet.


polychlorinated biphenyls


polychlorinated dibenzodioxins.

In 1991, these were the 6 most common carcinogens found in breast milk. The news has gotten worse since then. We are at the top of the food chain--toxins accumulate.

It has been known that breastfeeding reduces your chance of getting breast cancer. The longer you breastfeed your babies, the lower the risk. This has been attributed to hormonal changes related to breastfeeding--breastfeeding women cycle less, and had less exposure to estrogen.

There has been speculation (and it is only speculation), that breastfeeding may help reduce the chemical pollutant load on the mother. Guess who gets the chemicals.


The lifetime risk of a woman developing breast cancer was just less than 10% in the 1970's, or 1 in 10; it is now 13.4%, or almost 1 in 7 (NCI, 2005). In the 1940's, the risk was 1 in 22. Breast cancer is the leading cause of death in women 34 to 54 years of age.

Until recently, the incidence of breast cancer had gone up about a percentage point every year since 1940.


Janet Jackson flashes a breast, and our Federal Government now rushes to redefine obscene. Certain words and phrases will cost lots of money; Howard Stern has opted to put his voice into orbit.

Here's an obscene phrase that won't cost anything--in fact, in past Octobers you have might hear it dozens of times:

Early Detection is the Best Protection.

This makes no sense--once detected, you already have it. The best protection is prevention which, admittedly, would require massive, radical changes in the way we live. The NBCAM folks got wise--they now say "Early Detection Saves Lives"--if you go to their website, they pretend that this is what they have always said.

So it must be true.

I wrote this several years ago for a friend, who is still fighting, and for my mother, who lost.


Sue VanHattum said...

Thank you. (As always.) I don't like these sorts of things, but never could put my discomfort into words.

Now I'll point here.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, but now I feel guilty for breastfeeding so long (I know you didn't mean to do that). We never win.

John Spencer said...

I told you the story before about the woman at the grocery store who began screaming hysterically and then crying as her husband held her after she saw so many pink boxes. "They can't use this to sell products." Those words are etched in my mind.

I didn't participate in "pink day" last year despite my wife's family members who have breast cancer. Too much of it just rubs me the wrong way.

Kate said...

Doyle - how I cherish your voice.
You are the fiercest gentle soul that I have ever had the pleasure to know.
Thank you for insisting we listen.

Jenny said...

I don't yet know how to describe the emotions this post raised. And as overwhelming as these emotions are I am grateful to you for writing this. It can't have been easy but it needs to be said, again and again.

Gail said...

I didn't know.

Loli said...

Amen Brother...
I'm so sorry for our loss.

doyle said...

Dear Anonymous,

I am so opposed to formula feeding I think it should require a prescription. Breastfeeding has tremendous advantages, and it is only speculation that it reduces the load of carcinogens in breast fat.

Feeling guilty about breastfeeding is like feeling guilty for converting food into carbon dioxide. We are part of the universe. Enjoy!

Dear everyone,

Thank you for the words.

Kelly said...

Doyle, thank God formula didn't require a prescription. I won't go into the heartache and guilt associated with me not being able to breastfeed my first born. He's almost 16 and I have never recovered from the LaLeche Leagues damage to my self esteem and compentency as a mother. This is the only statement you've ever written that I've disagreed with.

He's fine, by the way. Handsome, smart, and talented.

About all the other - this post broke my heart. The heart inside the breast that is part of me, which I am grateful for, and which did feed my second child.

Thank you for your wisdom, as always.

Kelly said...

Got so emotional - sorry for the typo.

christine said...

I'm with you, doyle, since the fist time you read it. In spite of being a breast cancer survivor, I do not wear pink ribbons, and I dislike the way the symbol is often used.

Love you.
Butterfly Soup

momomom said...


sorry for the pain you had associated with feeding your first child.

A prescription doesn't mean forbidden. It just means hopefully prescriped with thought for those who need it. Formula is like medicine, life saving when needed and not to be taken casually.

doyle said...

Dear Kelly,

Please understand that it is not my intent to have mothers agonize over how they rear their children. Everyone has their own lives, their own reasons. I am sorry that my words hurt you.

While obviously formula will never require a prescription, I do think every child deserves, when possible, human milk. There are a lot of reasons breast milk is superior to formula (or, to be more correct, formula is inferior to human milk). Before feeding a newborn formula, the parents should know why formula is less than ideal.

If this is the first time you disagreed with me, I must be doing something wrong. =)

Dear Christine,

As you know (but others may not), you're the reason I wrote these words in the first place. I will go put a little preface on the post, Systyr.

And if folks want to read about one woman's story, read Chris's.

Dear momomom,

You kindly stated what I managed to butcher on the post. Thanks for the help. For those who do not know, momomom is a lactation specialist, and a very kind one.

Kelly Love said...

Dearest Doyle - your words did not hurt me. The hurt came sixteen years ago. I know, and knew, breastmilk was superior to anything I could ever buy off a shelf. I do believe every mother should breastfeed. Ironically, when I did get to breastfeed my second, I experienced the opposite--shooed away from public benches, made to go "away" and out of sight, even though he and my breast were not exposed.

All I'm ever asking for is common sense and balance, and no assumptions. That's a pretty tall order from most folks.

I had the great fortune to live in Tehran when I was twelve. One image that will forever stick in my mind is a very conservative, chador-clad woman whipping open her covering to clamp a child on a breast at the airport. No big spectacle, no bit production, just a mother feeding her child. Her husband and other children were with her.

Maybe folks create this spectacle out of breast cancer awareness because once again, we are so damned uncomfortable with basic biology, including sexuality. Repression is dressed in pink ribbons.

But I've also known plenty of men and women who otherwise would not step foot out of their houses walk together, grieve together, and try to heal. Perhaps you are suggesting we're walking for the wrong reasons--we need to have a 'Walk Against Toxins" movement.

Clix said...

I dunno. I think the pink-everywhere is several steps ahead of hushed whispers and pretending it doesn't happen. Rather than shouting "this is awful!" I think it'd be better to shout "this isn't enough!"

doyle said...

Dear Kelly,


Look who started the campaign. Look at the slogan. Look at what we've done culturally.

I have no beef with you or anyone caught in this madness. That was never my aim. I've smelled breast cancer. It has killed someone very close to me.

But it's not some foreign agent invading us--it's a consequence of the behaviors of the very same people cajoling us to wear pink. It's cynical and callous and (to be fair) quite clever.

We have managed to demonize sexuality AND sexualize breastfeeding in the last hundred years, no mean feat.

I'd be the first one to sign up for a walk against toxins. It won't happen, though, at least not by the same people who brought you tamoxifen and pink ribbons.

Dear Clix,

Ah, the false dichotomy argument--it's not an either/or position. Just about everyone knows it happens, because just about everyone is close to someone struck by breast cancer.

I am not against awareness. I am against mindless participation in rituals started by PR departments of huge chemical conglomerates who try to deflect the suffering they caused.

No hushed whispers here. I'll scream from the mountaintops. We are poisoning ourselves. Pink ribbons won't change that.