Newsletter #72–Jul./Aug. 2002

Beyond the Pink Ribbon:
BCA's Fifth Annual Town Meeting

by Lauren John

Activists, educators, artists, scientists, and physicians were among the hundreds that gathered at the Women’s Building in San Francisco on Saturday, April 20, for BCA’s fifth annual town meeting. To borrow a phrase from the 1960s, the town meeting is something of a teach-in. The afternoon began with a dedication ceremony led by best-selling author Anne Lamott to honor those who have died of the disease, followed by activist workshops and a provocative keynote address by acclaimed journalist Barbara Ehrenreich.

With these elements BCA hoped, of course, to engage hearts and minds. But we also hoped that women living with breast cancer would leave feeling empowered to step beyond the living room, the kitchen table, the doctor’s office, or the meeting hall and into the world at large, working together to break down the social, political, and medical barriers that stand in the way of true breast cancer prevention and a cure.

Ehrenreich, who was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, is a longtime woman’s health activist who has campaigned for some 30 years on issues including the need for safe contraceptives, the option of unmedicated childbirth, and the legal right to abortion. She is in the public eye these days as the author of the best selling book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, chronicling her efforts to survive on the wages of a low-skilled worker.

When she learned that she had breast cancer, she hoped to find empowerment in a progressive, consumer-educated breast cancer movement. Instead, she was disappointed to find what she terms a “relentlessly cheerful” breast cancer culture that has been created and funded in part by large department stores and cosmetic companies “eager to court middle-aged females.”

Where were these corporations, she asked the audience at the town meeting, when the women’s health movement was fighting for abortion rights and against involuntary sterilization?

Ehrenreich related an anecdote about the contents of a free tote bag distributed to breast cancer patients by the Libby Ross Foundation. The bag contained Estee Lauder body crème, a pink satin pillowcase, a set of Japanese cosmetics, two rhinestone bracelets and a package of crayons—gifts that left Ehrenreich far from enchanted.

Instead she was surprised by “the strange idea that you can fight a potentially fatal disease with eyeliner and blush.”

“I began to get the feeling that this breast cancer culture is not only about being pretty and femme,” she said. “It’s also about regressing back to being a little girl—a very good little girl, in fact.”

Ehrenreich learned about BCA during her breast cancer treatment, when her cousin sent her three back issues of the BCA Newsletter. “I read them cover to cover, thrilled to find other women who had confronted the disease and managed to keep their wits about them and their dignity intact,” Ehrenreich said. She contacted BCA when she began to gather information for an article that would appear in the November 2001 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

“Breast Cancer Action,” she told the audience at the town meeting, “is one of the few voices of clarity and consistently feminist determination within the vast sea of pink ribbons out there.”

And indeed, BCA’s town meeting was an event filled with wit and dignity and feminist determination.

“I have often wondered if anyone else is as distressed as I am that so many women are so politically naïve, allowing ourselves to be bought and sold by the pink ribbon cult,” said San Francisco activist Judy Brady, 65, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 43. “I needed to hear what Barbara Ehrenreich had to say. It made me realize that I am not alone in my thoughts. I left her speech feeling slightly less crazy.”

Activist Workshops

The afternoon featured five workshops on breast cancer issues:

Working Outside the Box: Reshaping Cancer Research Participants discussed ways to change the current fragmented, grant-driven state of cancer research which, to date, has yielded the same kinds of treatments women have had for 30 years: surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

Healthy People Before Healthy Profits This consumer education workshop centered on the dangers of direct-to-consumer drug advertising. One of the drugs discussed was tamoxifen, a hormonal therapy now marketed to healthy women as a breast cancer “prevention” pill.

Follow the Money: Getting Avon to Do the Right Thing The Avon Breast Cancer 3-Day walk is one of the largest corporate fund-raising events out there. This workshop looked at how the money is spent and raised questions about whether it is the best use of our resources. Participants learned how to get involved in BCA’s efforts to transform the face of cause-related marketing.

Stop Cancer Where It Starts: Practicing the Precautionary Principle This workshop explained and explored the precautionary principle—making corporate and environmental health decisions on a better-safe-than-sorry model—and the Stop Cancer Where It Starts Campaign, which seeks to educated the public and local governments about environmental links to cancer and encourages local legislation to reduce exposure to known and suspected toxins.

Doubt and Debate: Questioning Mammography This workshop debated the value of mammograms as a life-saving early detection tool, fostering a discussion of the need for not just better detection methods, but also better treatments and better ways of determining the aggressiveness of a tumor.

Even if you did not attend the town meeting, you can find out more about these issues and learn about actions you can take in your community by contacting Kendra Klein at the BCA office (kklein@bcaction.org, 415/243-9301 or 877/278-6722).

Going forward, BCA would like to bring town meetings like this one to communities around the United States, offering political discussion and workshops focused on breast cancer issues of local and widespread concern. “We’ve created a model for building breast cancer activism that can be used in many communities,” says BCA executive director Barbara A. Brenner. “We look forward to sharing this model with our allies around the country. All we need to make it happen is money and local contacts.”

Download a print or audio version of the speech Barbara Ehrenreich gave at the town meeting…

For a copy of BCA’s activist tool kit, containing talking points on breast cancer issues and opportunities to get involved in our work, contact the BCA office.