Drilling Down Deep - Pink Ribbon Cultures and Fracking
A check-up from the Stage 4 Breast Cancer Community
Marie Garlock — Chapel Hill, NC
…We may have finally found the limit to the phrase “everything’s prettier in pink!”
As you may know, this October superstar charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure teamed up with oil giant Baker Hughes to unleash the “Doing Our Bit for the Cure” Pink Ribbon Gas Fracking campaign. I write now as a young woman who’s lost a mother and many friends to stage 4 breast cancer, and inherits their will to be activated for a Fracking-free, pro-health economy. Maybe this one is finally ludicrous enough for us to “get it” — pink consumer-philanthropy ain’t all it’s cracked (or Fracked…) up to be.
On this year’s National Metastatic Breast Cancer Day (October 13), all I could think about were the hilarious jokes my mom Barbara used to tell about “Pink” breast cancer campaigns that so often miss the mark of what’s important to women facing serious cancer. She might have had a few choice words for this partnership claiming to represent the concerns of families “touched” by breast cancer — “Those Mother-Frackers!” Or, “This October, let’s not let our good intentions send us to ‘hell in a handbasket’ … (or to heaven in a ‘Frack casket’), ok?” She taught me that when something this ludicrous happens, you have to laugh so you don’t cry.
Given the facts, let’s ask some questions — and try to find some better solutions for breast cancer advocates to promote.
The Facts, Questions at Hand
One thousand hot pink, hand-painted drill bits are actually now in use for Fracking (Hydraulic Fracturing) — an unconventional gas extraction process that uses 100s of chemicals like BPAand Benzene, linked in the President’s Cancer Panel Report to breast cancer itself. All to "raise awareness” for breast cancer and publicly celebrate corporate social giving.
Pink breast cancer ribbons literally wrapped around a technology that poisons people, and a popular charity perfectly willing to take the dollars generated from it — how could it have happened? A lot of people had to approve this magenta-machined move. Were the millions of well-intentioned Komen volunteers and their global representatives just not paying close enough attention? Is the science available to Baker Hughes so drastically different from what’s available to the general public about the cancer-related dangers of Fracking? Do Komen and other mainstream Pink Ribbon charities’ missions and funds really do all they can to protect our health when receiving large corporate sponsorships?
In their press release, Baker Hughes and Komen share unfortunately fluffed up statistics on the success of the mammogram approach (which is problematic at best) — the release claims mammograms have cut breast cancer mortality by 33% since 1991. But this is in an era when,according to Pink Ribbon Blues researcher Dr. Gayle Sulik, “stage 0” cancers are trumped up and added to the tally, but “stage 4” cancer mortality rates haven’t improved in decades. Perhaps most surprising is the Komen-Baker Hughes’ plan: to create breast cancer “awareness”, giant hand-painted magenta Fracking drill bits are put in crates also stuffed with mammogram pamphlets and shipped to oil and gas rigs around the world. (Yes). Komen and Baker Hughes expect that, as they're preparing to inject carcinogenic chemicals into the ground, the roughnecks (the name for the 99% male workers on Fracking rigs), will open these “educational materials” and be inspired to tell their mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and girlfriends to get a mammogram. (Yes, really).
… Pretty in Pink, but What About Stage 4?
But “money is money!”and when it comes to Breast Cancer, all we care about is detection and a cure …right? As it turns out, people with metastatic breast cancer have a bit of a different story to tell. Beyond my familial connection, people with metastatic cancer (the kind that spread) are the population with whom I work for PhD research. For many stage 4 patients, their families and health providers, mainstream “Think Pink” Breast Cancer Awareness month is not a health campaign approach that speaks particularly well to them. In its narrow focus on early stage cancers (easier to digest in the public eye) much pink campaigning is already missing the mark for people concerned about metastatic disease. Mainstream breast cancer campaigns’ weird sexualizing of (primarily white) women’s bodies to “garner public awareness” is already a bit confusing for people more focused on life than “Great TaTas”. And in touting detection as thething that saves lives, cancer prevention is skipped right over — both in research commitments and pink publicity to fund them. This is especially frustrating for advanced cancer patients uniquely activated from within their own circumstances to make sure others won’t fill their shoes in the future. And with most “think pink” mentalities about breast cancer, healthcare access for cancer patients becomes an issue of individual charitable giving, versus social organizing and policy restructuring — a particularly alarming approach for people whosepotentially bankruptcy-causing, grueling chemotherapy becomes the sole object of medical care. With popular campaigns like Kohl’s, valid questions arise about how much money actually goes “to the cause” with pink ribbon purchases (sometimes fractions of a penny or less). And finally, there’s the idea of pinkwashing itself — perhaps no better described than in this particular moment of the Fracking and Breast Cancer corporate social giving alliance.
So how do we distinguish between awareness, advocacy, and action in an “awareness” drenched philanthropy approach to Breast Cancer? Specifically, what are some important educational, organizing, and action steps we can take as Breast Cancer advocates, regarding Fracking?
Making the Link between Breast Cancer Advocacy and Fracking
In a month awash with “easy-peasy” pink distractions from the politics of breast cancer, I was quite invigorated last week to be in the midst of valuable, expert-communication, while attending the national Fracking and Health Symposium. The Center for Environmental Healthallowed me to attend the symposium as a representative of Breast Cancer Action. To hearten others in the movement, I brought along information about our “Moral Mondays” movement in NC. In the last 2 years, we’ve had mass public rallies of nearly 80,000 people and more than 1,100 arrests in government buildings, which often centered on two things important to Breast Cancer advocates and BCA: the dangers of Fracking, and the need for life-saving healthcare coverage. The symposium convened national experts including medical professionals, environmental hazard researchers, community health monitors and grassroots watchdog leaders who shared resources, cutting-edge information, and action plans to address the alarming human health impacts of Fracking. In PA, WY, TX, and CO, places where conventional and unconventional (Fracking) gas extraction are already taking place, the quantitative, qualitative, mapping, and participant-action research all tells us: the evidence is clear that Fracking endangers public health and Fracking chemicals are linked to hormone disruption, neurological and respiratory dangers, to cancers, and more specifically, to breast cancer.
Want some talking points on Breast Cancer and Fracking? Here are three I learned at CEH's Symposium:
1. Fracking toxifies our water bodies and human bodies. To fight breast cancers and other disorders, we need environments free of hormone-disrupting chemicals.
As people who face cancer know well, it is confusing and difficult to deal with toxicity in our bodies — indeed, exposure to toxic chemicals a part of chemotherapy treatment regimens is the conundrum of modern cancer care. Chemo “hurts to help”, and even the tiniest amounts of toxic chemicals can add up to have a huge impact on longterm health and everyday life functioning (a circumstance amplified for persons with stage 4). Frackers do not honor so-called “cancer warriors” by creating more toxic exposures that put people at risk for cancer. And, it’s even more insulting to actually expose people to cancer under the facade of “ending it forever”.
Everywhere Fracking happens, toxic, hormone-disrupting chemicals are used. Fracking chemicals are typically injected into groundwater, or leaked into surface water outside strict regulatory oversight, due to legal loopholes Fracking companies negotiate with local governments as “incentives” for “bringing jobs” to their communities. As one cancer caregiver puts it, “All you need to know is that they won’t tell you what’s in the chemicals. I’m sorry, but that’s not intellectual property — that’s information that affects our health.” (In Pennsylvania, many residents report that their dogs won’t drink the water).
According to Dr. Susan Nagel, an Obstetrics Gynecology and Women’s Health Professor at University of Missouri and an Endocrine Society researcher, we already know the dangers of the few chemicals about which the Fracking industry releases information, among the 100s repeatedly injected into the ground and running off into surface water in each localized operation. For example, both BPA and Benzene, which are directly linked to Breast Cancer, work at very low concentrations — the level of 1 part per billion, or 1 drop in an olympic size swimming pool. A panelist at the Fracking and Health Symposium, Nagel said of hormone disrupting chemicals, “It’s like putting the wrong key in the lock — it gets stuck. We know breast cancer always occurs in relation to the entire lifespan, heightened by larger hormone disruptions earlier on. We’ve measured greater endocrine disrupting activity in surface water near fracking and drill sites, and there are already links to birth outcomes.”
2. Public health injustices are deepened by Fracking in acute and systemic ways.
Avoiding toxic exposure and ensuring quality health care for all — care which is dialogue-centered and evidence based — are 2 ways patient advocacy and health justice groups likeBreast Cancer Action have rightly identified we can reduce women’s risk of breast cancer, and stop its severity once diagnosed.
Women who face metastatic breast cancer are grossly underrepresented in cancer conversationsand research — and the hard truth is that people with aggressive cancers are also more likely to be racial minorities, and a part of low-income families. And indeed, as a perfect foil to the Breast Cancer Fracking stunt, low-income residents and people of color are usually first impacted by pollution sites like those caused by Fracking; they’re also more likely to fall in the well-identified US “Coverage Gap” for access to quality healthcare. In fact, in states like NC, Fracking was fast-tracked by our Governor simultaneously to his refusal of free federal Medicaid expansion. So where I’m from — and this might also be the case for you — the very same people most positioned to develop health problems through poisoning are also denied proper health coverage.
Due to NDA’s (non-disclosure agreements) and “gag rules” put in place by Fracking companiesin many states, people’s health complaints are being ignored, treated in isolation, or suppressed from public knowledge. And at the same time, physicians and nurses from across the country are alarmed by wider public health effects of Fracking on their communities. As Dr. Poune Saberi a University of Pennsylvania Professor of Clinical Practice and leader with Physicians for Social Responsibility describes it, “The fundamental challenge in health policy around Fracking is the inability to protect the vulnerable.” At the Symposium, Dr. Saberi described case studies in treating patients with toxic exposures from Fracking (possible lead poisoning effects among others). She noted the frustration many health professionals feel in Fracked communities — they must both treat patients without proper exposure data, and are often limited from sharing the results they do find with other physicians. Fracking companies impose gag rules on exposed residents, and implement confidentiality agreements which limit local medical professionals’ ability to share findings with colleagues — a process which severely limits quality of care. In Pennsylvania, the Department of Health has been cited for throwing out residents’ Fracking related health complaints, presumably due to industry pressures to destroy records.
3. We need clean air to breathe, and a voice to speak. (Fracking as an industrial and political practice threatens them both).
As many Fracking waste pits are currently designed, cloudy days mean that toxic chemicals otherwise evaporated by the sun are spread out into the air supply for residents in surrounding towns and cities. Acute and longterm respiratory disorders, nosebleeds, neurological disorders, headaches, and fainting are common among residents in Fracking communities. But many are not able to publicly speak about these health effects, or their discontent with Fracking’s effect on their communities — for example, more crime, sexual assault, and instances of human trafficking a result of workers in visiting “man camps”. Then there’s the diesel and noise pollution from 24-hour a day 18-wheeler traffic, used to transport the extracted gas; diesel is also a known carcinogen linked to breast cancer.
Dr. Lenore Resick, a Clinical Professor of Nursing at Duquesne University, interviews Mid-Appalachian women in Pennsylvania impacted by Fracking — she says they constantly report feelings of powerlessness. “They say, ‘You just feel power pressing down on you.’ Because if their husband’s working in the gas fields, their neighbors signed gag orders, and their air or water is toxic, who will want to hear what they have to say? They’re telling me, ‘You’ve gotta listen to us, you’ve got to get our story out there.’ We’ve got to understand the meaning of health in the context of environment.”
For most people I know who’ve faced breast cancer, especially the life-threatening kind, breath and voice are of utmost importance. For people who are sick — such as colleagues and family of mine who developed shortness of breath due either to side effects of medicine or the disease itself — oxygen is all the more precious a resource when scarce. It cycles to support the voices of people with stage 4 cancers who want to put a stop to cancer “where it starts”, rather than simply detecting it once it’s already there; and to reduce cancer’s severity and the things that feed it once diagnosed. To say the least, to “frack for an end to breast cancer” is quite an insult to the people we love who have faced it.
4. A change in awareness
What if breast cancer “awareness” campaigning meant linking health and environmental justice in our minds? Perhaps that message would not be so easily painted on the giant (and let’s be honest, pretty scary) tip of a Fracking drill bit.
Dr. Samantha King, author of Pink Ribbons, Inc. (also made into a film) notes contemporary corporations’ philanthropy strategy is to treat “donations like investments” — meaning they will give returns, and create further business opportunities. When we see that Frackers care about breast cancer, especially through the medium of such a popular charity as Komen, the hope may be for the public to equate this perceived kindness with commitment to people’s health. So perhaps we’ve got to start asking better questions — and hearing more perspectives from the people who face the type of breast cancer that can actually take your life.
If my mom were here, she’d probably write to her hundreds of blog followers about how this viral image of poisoner-sponsors and their willing pink recipients “Doing Our Bit” calls alternately upon her instincts of eye-trembling irritation, and upon her sense that a higher good is possible. Because, after all — she’d say in all her playfulness of spirit and contagious sense of ethical commitment — wrongdoers both solicit our prayers and call us to rally …. at the polls and in the streets. She might post a picture of her sign from “Frack-Free NC” rallies we went to last year, reading “Please Don’t Kill My Family: Cancer SUCKS!” (the word “family” surrounded by hand-drawn hearts). She’d probably invoke the names of her many friends that passed away from Breast Cancer, whom it mightily dishonors today, to push Fracking through a pink ribbon “PR” pipeline.
But because my mom passed away from Breast Cancer last year, it’s me who’s offering the invitation: Don’t “Fracking” Pink (or “Pink" Frack) for her or for me. Or for anyone you know that faces cancer or loves someone who does, or did. Support officials and organizations who will protect your and your children’s rights to toxicity-free, cancer-free lives now and in the future. Get rid of leaders — whomever they may be — willing to sell your health to companies that explode our ground for easy cash. Call for research into the environmental links between toxins and cancers, especially breast cancer (top charities often give very little to environmental research, but the President’s Cancer Panel Report says US cancers are environmentally linked about half the time). Call for lasting action that protects our rights to quality healthcare for all, to non-toxic air, and to drinking water that leaves our hormonal systems in tact. Talk with your friends and family about ways to reduce gas and oil consumption — and to assess our particularly American willingness to literally sacrifice our own bodies or our neighbors’ lives for the promise of money and, at best, temporary jobs.
Perhaps that’s what we need for this “Breast Cancer Awareness” month — a renewed practice in ethics and less “mother-frackin’” tricks. The loving, clear call from so many who’ve faced cancer to instead “Use Your Powers for Good, not Greed.” A move beyond awareness to education, organizing, and action that honors our loved ones who have faced breast and other cancers by making sure countless others won’t have to do the same.