Are all the pink ribbons helping to cure cancer?

Published: Friday, Nov. 11 2011 9:41 p.m. MST

With all the pink ribbons, pink football uniforms and pink products seen this fall, some may believe that breast cancer is about to be cured. Yet even with all the money being spent, researchers are no closer to a cure than they were 50 years ago.

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With all the pink ribbons, pink football uniforms and pink products seen this fall, some may believe that breast cancer is about to be cured. Yet even with all the money being spent, researchers are no closer to a cure than they were 50 years ago.

Breast cancer kills about 40,000 women each year and is the second-leading cause of death in women in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society.

"In spite of all the money that's been raised, mortality rates are as high as they ever were," said Samantha King, author of Pink Ribbons Inc. "Women basically have the same options for treatment they had 30-40 years ago."

King has studied the Pink Campaign, the media effort to increase breast cancer awareness, for more than 15 years and has tried to explain why the search for the cure of this cancer has garnered more attention than others.

"It allows us to say the word breast out loud," King said. "It's a symbol of the breast which symbolizes motherhood."

Some view all-star athletes sporting pink for the cause as groundbreaking and heartrending. Two years ago, BYU's basketball team partnered with Nike to have an all-pink game with shoes, uniforms and basketballs with pink accents.

However the gear totaled about $6,000 (paid for by Nike) that the team would only use once. Some of the jerseys were signed and donated, but the players kept most of the equipment for themselves.

For Lori Richards, whose mom and two sisters have both survived breast cancer, said she is appreciative of the efforts because anything anyone can do or contribute to the cause is helpful.

"I think it's a good idea because there wouldn't be sports teams if their mom hadn't brought them into the world," Richards said. "Who took them to practice when they were little? Who took care of them and went to their games?"

She said that she wishes more were being done, even if that means companies are using the pink ribbon primarily for profit.

"If they make a buck, that's fine," Richards said. "As long as the awareness is getting out there."

Still, others disagree with that reasoning, like a co-founder of The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Stacy Malkan, author of "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry," said some companies slap the label on the product knowing consumers will be more likely to choose that product because the consumers assume profits go to a good cause. She said some companies are employing a double-standard, claiming to raise awareness for breast cancer while continuing to use chemicals to make their products that can cause cancer.

"All of the big beauty companies that are trumpeting the pink ribbon do sell products that contribute to cancer," Malkan said.

Examples include lotions, makeup and even deodorants. She said women use around 12 beauty products per day, if those contain carcinogenic chemicals, it puts the woman at a much higher risk of developing cancer in the long-term.

Malkan said she hopes to see more companies focusing on prevention in the future and said that focus is more feasible than searching for cure.

"We've allowed that to happen," Malkan said. "In October, we get inundated with all sorts of pink ribbons from industries that are unhealthy. The pink ribbon has lost its meaning, and it's become a marketing tool. They don't tell you how much of the profits goes towards prevention."

Three-time breast cancer survivor Jan Samowitz figures that as long as some of the proceeds go toward the cause, she will buy it.

"I'm kind of opposite," Samowitz said. "I seek out products that have the breast cancer ribbons. I do seek out those products to help support it." For the Yoplait "Save Lids to Save Lives" campaign, 10 cents from each lid redeemed up to $2 million goes toward the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Going through numerous surgeries, radiation, and bouts of chemotherapy herself, Samowitz said she is willing to do anything she can to help raise awareness for breast cancer. She said she has convinced friends to get their mammograms early, and she recently ran the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

"I was able to walk the two miles," she said. "My husband was there. When I walked by him, it was the first time I wanted to cry because he was crying. There was a sea of pink shirts. It was a magnificent journey. It was all or more that I hoped for."

A spokeswoman for The Susan G. Komen Foundation, the largest breast cancer movement in the world, said their partnerships with Major League Baseball, the Dallas Cowboys, NASCAR and other professional sports have increased exposure and publicity about breast cancer.

"Our partnerships with professional athletic teams help us do a couple of things, raise awareness in the community and with the TV audience," said Director of Corporate Relations Carrie Glasscock. "They offer a public forum for celebrating breast cancer survivors."

The Foundation tries to offer a bucket list type of experience to some breast cancer survivors through their partnerships. For example, on Mother's Day, breast cancer survivors can be nominated to be bat girls for MLB games where the pink bats are used.

"I really think it is getting people involved in the breast cancer movement that is comfortable for them," Glasscock said. "So many people are passionate about professional sports and are also passionate about the fight against breast cancer."

The organization has made great strides, however the partnership with MLB brings in $100,000 per year, which sounds like a lot. But for a $1.2 billion industry, it seems like a small effort to produce bats every year used for one game that only generates a $100,000 donation that goes to breast cancer research.

Those looking to contribute to the cause can donate to local programs as well, like the Swing for Life tournament, which was started by a breast cancer survivor in Salt Lake City.

"We're all on the same team," said Kathy Howa, the founder of Swing for Life. "We're really doing something that's for the good of others."

Howa has been in remission for nine and a half years and as the head softball coach at Rowland Hall, she wanted to prevent other women from having to deal with the same disease. The Swing for Life organization began with pledges and grew every year until it was a tournament with other schools involved. Now it is a nationwide foundation with $738,000 racked up towards breast cancer research at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

"The only thing I have to pay out is for an accountant to do our taxes," Howa said. "Every profit goes straight to research, and not very many can say that."

Swing for Life has been able to keep costs so low because teams run the events themselves, and Jon Huntsman underwrites any expenses at the research hospital. The foundation has done so much that a new wing in the Huntsman Cancer Institute was named the Swing for Life Educational Room.

"We're all striving to do the best we can to find the cure," Howa said. "Everyone seems to be that way, and I really hope they focus on that."

EMAIL: sgambles@desnews.com

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