Fighting Cancer?

More than 5,000 women of all ages, many dressed in fancy dress, will be descending on the city’s Victoria Park for tomorrow’s Race for Life event. Almost all those taking part have a very personal reason for entering the event — but they all have one aim — to raise cash for Cancer Research UK.

Unfortunately such events are emblematic of the corporate hijacking of the Breast Cancer Movement, with all too many well-meaning people participating in the feel-good activism willingly organized by Bad Pharma. One notable Bad Pharma representative being Michael Pragnell, who serves as the chairman of Cancer Research UK’s board of trustees, and whose corporate background includes his acting as a recent CEO of agrochemical giant Syngenta AG, and a former executive director of sickening cancer profiteer AstraZeneca.

One might also observe that until a couple of months ago Sir James Crosby, the former murderous CEO of HBOS was Cancer Research UK’s treasurer, and to this day he still serves on the advisory board of well-known private equity healthcare vulture Bridgepoint — which is helping prepare British citizens for a future where the poor will be unable to access affordable cancer prevention and treatment.

Much can be learned from learned from overseas breast cancer misadventures, as its causes need to be understood so that its toxic legacy can be laid to rest. Thus just when American women first came out onto the streets in the 1970s to give voice to their discontent at President Nixon’s so-called ‘War on Cancer’, corporations responded in kind, seeking to force them back into quietude.

Samantha King’s book Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy (2008) fulfils a vital role for all concerned citizens wishing to understand how corporate philanthropy — ostensibly in the service of cancer activism — has “helped fashion a far-reaching constriction of public life, of the meaning of citizenship and political action, and of notions of responsibility and generosity.”

Consumption of “pink ribbon” merchandise has in many ways come to replace meaningful political engagement with the root causes of cancer. Feel-good celebration of survivorship in turn replaces righteous and much-needed politically targeted anger.

Money talks… and funding agencies (both nonprofit and for-profit) have exhibited a rather worrying, but entirely understandable, fixation on supporting “research that focuses on screening and treatment rather than prevention.”

With the terms of the funding debate for the Breast Cancer Movement adequately constricted, corporations have strived to undermine any effective grassroots political organizing that was taking place, overwhelming it with “an informal alliance of large corporations (particularly pharmaceutical companies, mammography equipment manufacturers, and cosmetics producers), major cancer charities, the state, and the media…”

There has of course been much determined resistance to the corporate hijacking of the Breast Cancer Movement, with the “most prominent” example (highlighted by King) being Breast Cancer Action (BCA).

In the past BCA has had a special focus on the activities of the Avon, a corporation which “has increasingly deployed philanthropy not merely to further some social good, but as a technique for market penetration and retention.” So it is useful that last year BCA released a documentary based on King’s book titled Pink Ribbons, Inc, whose script moves beyond the false hope offered by the hopelessly co-opted mainstream cancer movement.

Narrowly focused single-issue organising — a long-standing favourite of the corporate world — will not suffice for any citizen genuinely concerned about organised political change: especially if the root causes of breast cancer and women’s suffering are to be adequately addressed.

Indeed, in the past “such a singular focus prevents activists, policy makers, the media, and the public at large from understanding questions of health and illness in the larger context from which they arise.” This need not and must not remain the case.

For a more detailed review of Pink Ribbons, Inc. see “Of Pink Ribbons and Philanthropy.

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