July 18th, 2011
Komen's pink ribbons raise green, and questions
Supporters of Susan G. Komen for the Cure are used to seeing the group’s founder, Nancy Brinker, at fundraisers such as Race for the Cure.
Promise Me is the new fragrance from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, and its manufacturer has pledged to donate at least $1 million to the charity. But perfumes can create health problems for chemo patients.
But some breast cancer survivors said they were surprised to see Brinker recently on the Home Shopping Network selling perfume. The new fragrance, called Promise Me, comes in a rose-colored bottle with Komen’s trademarked pink ribbon, and its manufacturer has pledged to donate at least $1 million to the charity. The perfume is the latest in a long line of products bearing Komen’s pink ribbon, from kitchen mixers to gardening gloves, that have helped the group raise $1.9 billion for breast cancer causes.
And though some of Komen’s marketing partners have become the butt of jokes (KFC’s pink “Buckets for the Cure” was even satirized on The Colbert Report last year), none of these pink-ribboned products has angered as many breast cancer survivors as the new fragrance.
Patients treated with chemotherapy often become hypersensitive to scents, and perfumes can give them headaches, dizzy spells or nausea, even years after treatment, says survivor Brenda Coffee, 61, author of Breast Cancer Sisterhood.
Karuna Jaggar, executive director of the San Francisco-based advocacy group Breast Cancer Action, says she’s even more concerned by the perfume’s ingredients, which include chemicals linked to breast cancer in lab animals.
“There have been a lot of signals that Komen has lost touch with its core constituency,” says survivor Lani Horn, 40, who writes about breast cancer at ChemoBabe.com. “But this felt like a personal insult.”
A group as influential as Komen — the world’s largest breast cancer charity — should be more sensitive to the daily struggles of women with breast cancer, adds Horn, who says she nearly passed out after a woman sprayed perfume at her gym. The experience was one of many reminders, she says, of how cancer left her vulnerable, even to seemingly minor threats.
Breast cancer bloggers have been merciless in panning the perfume. On the ChemoBabe Facebook page, survivors have written in with alternative names for the fragrance, such as “Race for the Puke” and “Radiation No. 5.”
A growing number of women complain of “pink fatigue” and are uncomfortable with the idea of commercializing breast cancer, says Gayle Sulik, author of the new book Pink Ribbon Blues. There’s even a blog, komenwatch.org, that polices Komen’s activities.
Komen isn’t the only group marketing pink-ribboned products, of course. Marketers have slapped ribbons on everything from cars to booze to guns — and it’s not always clear where the proceeds end up, Jaggar says.
Through its Think Before You Pink campaign, launched in 2002, Breast Cancer Action encourages consumers to ask tough questions before buying pink products. Instead of trying to “shop for the cure,” Jaggar suggests that people simply write a check to their favorite charity.
Komen is listening
Founder Brinker defends Komen’s partnerships, noting that the pink ribbon has become a symbol of strength and support for women facing a difficult illness. Brinker says her appearance on the Home Shopping Network reached 91 million, including many who may not hear about breast cancer screening anywhere else. KFC’s pink buckets of chicken helped Komen raise $4 million, she says; money from partnerships such as this allowed Komen to provide screening mammograms to 600,000 women last year.
But Brinker says she’s listening to women’s concerns. She says she has asked Promise Me’s manufacturer to look into reformulating the perfume to remove any irritating scents. And she’s confident that its ingredients are safe, noting that none of them have been proven to cause cancer in humans.
Yet some survivors say they’re concerned that some of Komen’s partners could promote cancer in other ways. Fried chicken can pack on pounds, Coffee notes, which increases the risk of breast cancer after menopause, and raises the risk of relapse in women who have had the disease.
“After you’ve had breast cancer,” Coffee says, “the name of our game is to watch what you eat and what you put on your body.”