During the second presidential debate on Tuesday, we saw Ann Romney and Michelle Obama sporting almost identical pepto pink outfits. No one said “breast cancer,” but everyone got the tacit pink nod to Breast Cancer Industry Month.
What are we to make of this symbolic gesture in the middle of a month devoted to “awareness” of a disease that kills 40,000 women a year? To get at real solutions to the breast cancer epidemic, we have to go beyond pink.
Pink, without substance or even acknowledgment of a disease that kills 40,000 women a year, is emblematic of a simplistic and ineffective approach to addressing and ending the breast cancer epidemic. Pink means screening, specifically mammography, early and often, regardless of risk. Pink means “shopping for the cure,” buying pink products as the highest form of activism and commitment to the cause.
There are no quick fixes to the breast cancer epidemic and quick fix solutions like “get screened” and “buy pink” do a disservice to women’s health and therefore to all of us. The breast cancer epidemic is a public health crisis requiring complex, system-wide solutions. Our government has a central role to play in this public health crisis.
During the debate, President Obama rightly addressed women’s health as a complex issue. He connected the dots between healthcare, including contraception and preventative services, childcare, and the economy. These connections are important for women’s health.
But we cannot stop where President Obama did. Breast cancer, like all women’s health issues, is inextricably tied to environmental, economic, social, and racial justice issues we didn’t hear about in last night’s debate.
I wish we’d heard about toxins in our environment that harm our health and increase our risk of breast cancer, which none of us can avoid through so-called “smart shopping.” There are 80,000 synthetic chemicals on the market, only a tiny percentage of which have been tested for their impact on human health. In 2010 the President’s Cancer Panel found that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.” We need strong regulation of toxic chemicals to reverse that trend.
I wish we’d heard how inequities in health outcomes are related to where we live, work and play – not just access to healthcare, as important as it is. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s report Overcoming Obstacles to Health found that medical care accounts for only 10-15% of all preventable mortalities in this country. When it comes to cancer specifically, the American Cancer Society’s 2011 Cancer Facts and Figures showed that 60,000 premature cancer deaths could be avoided if everyone had the same death rates as the most educated whites. These disturbing numbers are not inevitable and demand our national attention.
I wish we’d heard a strong commitment from either candidate to always put our health before corporate profits, including at the Food & Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. We need government that is accountable to the people, rather than industries polluting our lives. That includes not staffing regulatory agencies with former industry heads like Michael Taylor, a former senior vice president at Monsanto and now a senior adviser to the FDA – the agency charged with regulating Monsanto. Our government should end the revolving door between industry and regulatory agencies.
These are all issues central to women’s health which demand our attention, and we will not address and end the breast cancer epidemic without connecting the dots.
In 1960, 1 in 20 women who lived to age 85 would get breast cancer. Today, that number is 1 in 8. Breast cancer is not an individual problem; it is a public health crisis and systemic issue. The roots of this public health crisis are complex, and we need complex solutions to address and end it.
That’s why our government has a unique and essential role in protecting and supporting women’s health. As individuals we cannot shop, or run, or walk our way out of the breast cancer epidemic. We need our government to work in our collective interest to invest in independent research, regulate toxic polluters, and get at the roots of health inequities.
Together we should demand our government step up to that role in all its complexity. Fashion bloggers labeled Michelle and Ann’s wardrobe synchronicity an “oops.” The real “oops” in this election and beyond would be continuing to put the burden of responsibility on individual women to not get breast cancer — and expecting them to pink their way through it if they do.