BRCAnomics: Don’t Buy into Cancer Consumerism

Ah, the shower shirt ($78 + shipping), a garbage bag for showering after mastectomy. I remember seeing these kind of things when I was planning my surgery and wondering if I needed them. I was terrified and tried to micromanage the entire situation. I was ready to empty my bank account to make the experience even a smidgen less awful.

To all the scared women facing mastectomy and wondering if you need a shower shirt, I get it. I’ve been there. Now, I’m here on the other side of mastectomy to tell you that you do not need this shit.

You don’t need axillapillas ($20 + shipping each), for under your arms–regular pillows work just fine. You don’t need pink pockets ($19.99 + shipping) to hold your drains–pinning them to your mastectomy bra works just fine. You don’t need the brobe ($89.99 + shipping) to carry drains and cover up–regular pajamas and bathrobes work just fine.

Most of these products, and a zillion others, are made by companies founded by well-intentioned women who’ve had mastectomies. They’ve been through it themselves and wish there was a better way. I wish there was a better way too. Surgery sucks. It’s painful. It’s expensive. It’s inconvenient. But buying unnecessary, overpriced products that you’ll use once or twice is not going to make the situation any better or make you more comfortable. It’s just going to make you poorer and leave you with a bunch of useless stuff once you’ve recovered.

Well intentioned or not, these products sell by preying on the fears of vulnerable women facing surgery. It’s capitalism, baby: there’s lots of money to be made off of BRCA+ women and women with cancer. Cancer consumerism–you don’t need it.



Bright Pinkwashing: Fabfest 2014

I’ve posted on my ambivalence towards Bright Pink before, but lately that ambivalence has turned into outright dislike. This video about Fabfest was the tipping point. I am officially on the Bright Pink Hate Wagon.

Bright Pink repeatedly emphasizes the links between “fitness” and health. That sounds fine in theory, but in practice their media presence–advertisements, promotions, Facebook page, twitter account, and various videos–make it clear that being “fit” is really a euphemism for being thin. The Fabfest video above is yet another example of Bright Pink’s penchant for presenting heteronormative femininity as the path to health and wellness. This is obviously galling from a feminist perspective, but it’s also frustrating from a disability studies perspective: they seem at pains to show that genetically aberrant BRCA+ bodies can pass as normative. Such an approach isn’t  particularly unique: mainstream breast cancer nonprofits have long tried to help women obtain the markers of conventionally femininity. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that an organization called Bright Pink would espouse a pinker than pink ideology, but it’s nonetheless disappointing considering that there are so few resources for BRCA+ women.

Note how the video splices in clear views of corporate logos with images of happy thin women as uplifting music plays. Bright Pink isn’t just selling conventional gender norms, they’re also selling products, particularly cosmetics and clothing. From this perspective, BRCA+ women are not an audience that needs to be informed. Instead, they’re an untapped niche market in need of makeovers. Got BRCA+? Now you too can have immaculately flat-ironed hair. Given this investment in cancer consumerism, is it any wonder that Bright Pink has been posting on twitter about working with Myriad Genetics? (Compare all this to the FORCE website and convention, both of which focus on educating high risk women about the latest medical advances, how to be their own advocates, and how to navigate the medical, cancer, and insurance industries)

To a large extent, Bright Pink is taking a page from the Komen play book here, but with one exception: there are no smiling survivors draped in pink, no bald heads signalling women currently undergoing cancer treatment, no photos of female family members taken too soon by cancer. Bright Pink’s media ironically erases any signs of illness or disease from what it means to be BRCA+. There are no signs of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer at Fabfest, because there’s no sense of familial relations or larger social and relational contexts. There’s simply young white women fighting the good fight against cancer with shimmery eyeshadow. In other words, cancer becomes individual, rather systemic, and BRCA mutations become as nonthreatening as a sea of identically hairless svelte pink-clad bodies in downward facing dog.

This message is especially misleading because it suggests that if BRCA+ women simply conform to conventional femininity (eat green! exercise! wear yoga pants! have shiny, shiny hair!), then they will be protected from cancer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Remember: most women with breast cancer don’t have risk factors and we don’t know exactly what causes most sporadic cancers (my bet is on environmental factors). Being “healthy,” bourgeois, and pretty won’t protect women–both the genetically normal and abnormal–from breast cancer.