Susan, science, and stagnation

I’m not sure “stagnation” is an actual word, but I like the alliteration so it stays. It’s my blog, after all, and I can make up words if I want to (but I’m still not comfortable ending a sentence with a preposition, hence the parenthetical aside).

Ok, with that out of the way…on to the news.

Susan Love announced that she’s been diagnosed with leukemia.

My immediate response to this news: Dammit.

Dr Susan Love is someone I respect and admire, and she’s done more for the breast cancer cause than a room full of Komens, IMHO. Her book, Dr Susan Love’s Breast Book, is considered the bible for those with breast cancer. Her focus is on research, not ribbons. The mission statement for her organization is this: “The Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation works to eradicate breast cancer and improve the quality of women’s health through innovative research, education, and advocacy.” She mobilized the Army of Women to get women of all ages, races, and stages involved in research. I’ve participated in several AOW studies, from simple online surveys to blood tests, and believe wholeheartedly in what she’s doing. Love says, “The key to ending breast cancer is to learn how to stop it before it starts.” YES! She also says,

“I have spent my whole life working in the field of breast cancer. At this point I am frustrated that we are still doing the same treatments with about the same results as when I started thirty years ago. Now that we can get to where breast cancer starts we have the opportunity to eradicate it. I am excited and impatient. The road is clear. We can go slowly or quickly, but everyday that we delay another 592 women will be diagnosed and 110 will die. The cost is too high to hesitate. This is our job not our daughters’, granddaughters’, nieces’ or nephews’. We can do it and we have to do it!”

When Love announced her diagnosis yesterday, she was resolute in facing the bad news, saying “As many of you know, I have never shrunk from a challenge.  I plan to bring my indomitable drive and energy to overcoming this and will be back to work as soon as possible.”  Go get ’em, Susan!

Next, the science news. A 45-year-old Bay Area man has been cured of HIV and the cause of his cure is a bone marrow stem cell transplant. My friend Katie at Uneasy Pink sums up the science of this breakthrough much better than I; check it out. Long story short is that the guy, who tested positive for HIV in 1995, also battled leukemia and underwent a bone marrow stem cell transplant in  Berlin in 2007. The donor was immune to HIV, and as those cells were transplanted, so was the immunity.

Famed AIDS researcher Dr. Jay Levy, who co-discovered the HIV virus, said this case opens the door to the field of “cure research,” which is now gaining more attention. “If you’re able to take the white cells from someone and manipulate them so they’re no longer infected, or infectable, no longer infectable by HIV, and those white cells become the whole immune system of that individual, you’ve got essentially a functional cure.”

I am all kinds of fired up about this incredible news.

There is great potential, and the idea of cure research is exciting. I would love to see if spill over into breast cancer. As Katie puts it, “I understand that HIV/AIDS and cancer are very different diseases.  But look at the progress that has been made over several decades.  In 1983, the idea that we would be deciding whether someone was cured or not of AIDS, that we would be debating how few cells mean cure, was unthinkable.  Back then, virtually everyone who contracted AIDS died of it, and in about 9 months from diagnosis.  Now the average survival time after diagnosis is 24 years.”

Survival time of 24 years. Remember when AIDS first hit the scene in the early 1980s, and a diagnosis was the same as a death sentence? Now, 30 years later, AIDS experts are talking about cure research? Amazing.

Why isn’t this kind of thinking being applied to breast cancer research?

I’m guessing the reasons are many, but can’t help but think that one reason is because we’ve made breast cancer so pretty. It’s one of the most heavily funded cancers in terms of research, yet as Dr Love points out, treatments and results are the same now as they were 30 years ago. I know, I know — cancer is incredibly complex and varied, not just in terms of the different types (breast, colon, etc) but within each type, there are immense differences. Then there are the differences in each person who’s diagnosed, as well as the differences in each cell. I don’t expect a panacea, but I do expect cure research.

It’s funny — not ha ha funny but peculiar — that in trying to de-stigmatize breast cancer, we’ve ended up trivializing it. The glamor disease is marketed as rosy, fun, and celebratory, when in fact, it’s deadly. And in the cases in which it doesn’t kill its victims, it nonetheless maims them and messes them up in untold ways. Even the “lucky ones” who “caught it early” and “enjoyed the best possible outcome” are scarred, physically and emotionally.

I saw this ad in a magazine recently, and had to rip it out and put it on my desk so that I’d remember to blog about it. This is what I’m talking about, people. 

Do we really need ads like this?

What does this accomplish, exactly? As a woman, this makes me mad. As a woman diagnosed with breast cancer, it infuriates me. And as a woman who has undergone reconstruction and is facing the hard truth that no amount of surgery will ever restore what I once had, it makes me want to strangle someone with my bare hands. Maybe I’ll start with those models then move on to the jackass behind the ad campaign.

If you zoom in on this dumb ad, it’s not entirely clear what’s going on here besides lots of skin, perky breasts, and a hand. This is what passes for breast cancer “awareness?”

Did the ad execs behind this think the hint of lesbianism would sell? Did they consider that the woman of color in the middle would be completely shafted should she be diagnosed, because black women die from breast cancer far more often than white women?

Then there’s the text of the ad: Connect, communicate, and conquer? Could this be any more vague and vapid? What the hell are they even selling? I had to look closely and read the fine print to see who put this ad out there. It’s on the very bottom of the ad — the Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign, which is run by Estee Lauder. Again, what the hell are they selling? Remove the pink-ribbon bracelet and this could easily be an ad for a plastic surgeon hawking breast augmentation.

I’ve had it with this side of the “awareness” campaign. Can anyone tell me what this kind of marketing does to actually  help our cause? I know the research dollars have to come from somewhere, but surely we don’t need naked breasts to plead our case.

A quick google search turned up plenty of these kinds of ads.

These last two are my favorite. The boxing girl, who I’ve written about before, because the idea of being a fighter when it comes to breast cancer is so pervasive, and the flip side to that idea being the ones who die from this wretched disease somehow didn’t fight quite hard enough and “lost the battle.” The “Expose the Truth” ad, from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, because the “truth” has nothing at all to do with the model they chose to represent their message. The truth is, ads like these perpetuate the idea that breast cancer is a sexy, pretty disease.

Why can’t we have more ads like this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

We sure don’t ever see ads like this, do we?

27 Comments on “Susan, science, and stagnation”

  1. David Benbow says:

    As always, a great blog.

    Sorry to hear about Susan’s diagnosis, but I’m glad she’s attacking it head-on.

    By the way, “stagnation” is a very legitmate word. And as far as ending sentences with a preposition, it’s ok to. Hee hee.

  2. Katie says:

    Thanks for linking to UP. There is so much gross stuff in this post… And I don’t mean your words.


  3. What an outstanding blog! I’m telling everyone about your post because I’m as angry as you are… I’m pissed off!! And, I’m devastated about Susan Love.

  4. Great job, both of you:)

    The other lesson we can learn from AIDS activism: they refused to make it pretty. It isn’t. It wasn’t. And cancer never is.

    Thanks so much.

    • Jody, you’re so right that neither disease is pretty. Following the example set by AIDS activists would serve our BC community well. Thanks for reading and for commenting.

  5. billgncs says:

    when my kids were young, and a magazine had adds like that, I would always start damage control by telling my young daughters “too skinny, needs some meat on their bones”, to prevent the anorexic body image message.

    I agree with your analysis – -what is the message they are sending ?

    • Bill, you are a wise man. The damage control for your kids is just what this world needs to combat the utterly unrealistic portrayal of body image messages. Good for you! And thanks, as always, for reading and taking the time to comment.

  6. Jan Baird says:

    Nancy, thanks for the exposé. I just can’t believe the audacity of these Madison Ave. execs who come up with this sexy nonsense. And then again, I can believe it. Their minds are in the toilet. Why we can’t have the great news of a likely cure that AIDS patients have heard is unfathomable, inexcusable. Keep up the discussion, the outrage. We all must. xx

    • “Their minds are in the toilet” may be my most favorite blog comment, Jan! I can feel your outrage as I read this! I will continue to discussion and feed the outrage — you can count on that! As always, I love hearing from you. xo

  7. Kirsten says:

    As a woman who has gone through breast cancer herself and who has known other women who have suffered with this disease, even perished from it, it touches a nerve to read this blog. There is nothing pretty or sexy about breast cancer at all. The author speaks truth when she says that even for those of us who have gotten off relatively easily, there remains permanent physical and emotional scars. I would love to see a less frivolous approach to the whole awareness campaign myself. It absolutely is time to be more serious minded about it, raising awareness about steps to avoid it, and refocusing our minds and hearts and finances on cure research! What a miracle to read about the HIV patient who was functionally cured through bone marrow transplant! This kind of hope is extremely encouraging!

    • Hi Kirsten! I’m glad this post touched a nerve with you and I agree completely that it is time to move from “pretty in pink” to cure research. That’s one of the main reasons I continue to tackle the glamorizing of BC. I will keep shouting it from the rooftops until we see the tide turn. Thanks for reading.

  8. Trevor Hicks says:

    Show up at the next Komen run like this guy and see how welcome you are.

  9. jelebelle says:

    echo’ing everything said above. nice work in taking the time and having the energy to post something that hits many of us so close to home, with breast cancer or any other cancer alike…
    sometimes i feel as if i have the “fashionable” disease which is absurd and it’s mostly due to ads such as you discuss. thank you for sharing the links and info.

  10. […] that shocked and dismayed us – the news that Dr Susan Love has been diagnosed with leukemia. Nancy writes in her Pink Underbelly blog: Her book, Dr Susan Love’s Breast Book, is considered the bible for those with breast cancer. Her […]

  11. Nancy,
    You covered a lot of ground in this post! Well done! It’s outrageous the way breast cancer has been “prettied up” isn’t it? No deadly disease should ever be trivialized. It’s just wrong.

    I was saddened to hear about Dr. Love’s diagnosis too.

    Thanks for writing with such passion.

  12. Chris says:

    My husband and I have often felt that instead of campaigns that show pretty bosoms, there should be one in which our scars are featured instead. Boobs are ubiquitous in advertising. Wanna shake things up? Wanna really get someone’s attention? Show the reality of what breast cancer does. I’d volunteer; exposed and vulnerable as that would make me feel. It’s one reason, besides just pure physical comfort, that I chose not to wear wigs or hats or scarves for the majority of the time during my treatment. I decided it was my contribution towards cancer awareness – if others feel uncomfortable looking at me, so be it.

    I don’t even think I have the words to express how I feel about Dr. Love’s diagnosis – she has my deepest respect and admiration for everything that she does, and has done, and hopefully will continue doing.

    Having lost a dear friend to HIV/AIDS, I am so encouraged about what the research has accomplished and about what it could possibly mean for cancer patients as well.

  13. Bruce Kramer says:

    I know I am late to the commentary, but I wanted to tell you how much I appreciated this one. It goes well beyond breast cancer and into the whole way we think we need to pretty up life and death in these United States. I cannot help but ask, who really benefits from all this? Whose needs are being met? Persons with life-threatening disease? Not really, but that is part of the scam.

    Keep telling the truth. I get strength from your remarkable courage.

  14. elizabeth connolly says:

    those ads are unbelievable. Yes, what are they about ? can they not even make adds about breast cancer awareness without still making the ad as if they are selling sex. The reason we don’t see the add about prostrate cancer is because it’s sexism pure and simple. Men don’t like to see themselves in those kind of ads but with women there is always a sexual angle and men do run most of the ad agencies not to mention the country. Okay thats my venting for the day. Love seeing the cousins all together. How they have all grown .I do see a family look in all of them. I agree , let’s see a photo of you and your brother. Love .

  15. This gallery of sexy breast cancer makes my head spin, as does pretending that these images have anything at all to do with ‘breast cancer awareness.’ What am I aware of with these images?? Same as you. That women’s bodies will be objectified for any reason whatsoever in this culture to sell stuff. I wrote an essay called “Boobies, for fun and profit” that highlights one of those sexy pink ribbon images you shared.

    Thank you for keeping it real!!!

    Gayle Sulik

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