On the first of October, the White House was lit up pink in honor of breast-cancer awareness. President Trump even released a statement pledging to “stand strong for those facing a breast cancer diagnosis.”
“By raising awareness of breast cancer and supporting research, prevention, and early detection, we will move closer to eradicating this disease,” the statement added.
Since then, the White House has not made another peep about breast cancer. Perhaps they have forgotten to be sufficiently Aware(™). Instead, the president has used the month to make several moves that, more than anything, show breast-cancer patients how little Trump cares for them. Or even thinks about them at all. He’s attacked an Affordable Care Act provision that makes insurance policies more affordable to low-income people, targeted environmental regulations, and singled out women’s health. And the month’s only half over.
The most obviously unhelpful move, in the short term at least, is Trump’s executive order cutting government subsidies to Affordable Care Act marketplaces, which he signed last week. The subsidies were designed to help those who couldn’t otherwise afford insurance policies pay for them. The White House’s move promises to drive up premiums for everybody and, ostensibly, put insurance coverage out of reach for some low-income women. Diagnosing and treating breast cancer costs tens of thousands of dollars, and low-income women are more likely to die from breast cancer than their middle- and high-income counterparts.
Further, Trump’s EPA has rolled back Obama-era protections, which could put more women at risk of being exposed to environmental factors that may cause breast cancer. (Not much is known about environmental causes of breast cancer because much of the billions raised by the breast-cancer industry has gone to developing ways to diagnose and treat the disease rather than ways to prevent it in the first place.) Either way, more poison in the ecosystem seems to bode poorly for people who hope to avoid cancer.
Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico, residents desperate for clean water are being directed to polluted Superfund sites.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Trump, a professional bullshit artist with no public-health or public-service experience, would use breast-cancer awareness month as a one-off photo opp devoid of constructive action. But to breast-cancer activists, empty October gestures by corporations and public figures are so predictable they’ve spawned their own portmanteau: pinkwashing.
The phrase “pinkwashing” was coined by Breast Cancer Action, a sort of rogue breast-cancer activism organization that refuses donations from corporations that manufacture products that may contribute to high rates of cancer.
Notable pinkwashers of the past include Estee Lauder, which markets breast-cancer awareness-branded products that contain chemicals like parabens, which may cause cancer or interfere with cancer treatment; citrus growers, who, while marketing pink breast-cancer-awareness products, irrigated their fruit with oil company wastewater; a fracking company—fracking has been linked to cancer-causing carcinogens—that marketed a breast-cancer awareness fracking drillbit (really. This really happened); and Kentucky Fried Chicken’s pink breast-cancer awareness fried chicken bucket (see the research on a high-fat diet and increased cancer risk here).
All of these companies and more have found themselves targets of Breast Cancer Action’s annual Think Before You Pink campaign. And in large part because of their efforts, corporate breast-cancer profiteering has gotten slightly less atrocious in recent years.
But breast-cancer rates haven’t declined in a way that indicates all this “awareness” marketing is helping at all. And Karuna Jaggar, BCA’s executive director, isn’t terribly impressed with Trump’s own turn at pinkwashing, telling The Daily Beast that lighting up the White House pink for “awareness” is exactly the sort of empty gesture that helps nobody.
“Everybody’s plenty aware of breast cancer,” Jaggar says. “And we don’t have enough to show for the billions we’ve raised in the name of breast-cancer awareness.”
Breast-cancer rates continue to rise, despite all this awareness. While five-year survival rates are also improving, those statistics are sometimes misleading. Breast cancer often recurs beyond five years, and early detection could artificially inflate survival statistics. Further, black and Hispanic women face worse outcomes than white women. Hispanic women fare worse than their white counterparts when diagnosed with the disease at identical stages. To organizations like BCA, the fight against breast cancer is as much about social justice as it is about public health.
Trump is far from the first pinkwashing politician. But something about the president’s half-assed hand wave to kick off a month of implementing policies that actually hurt women, actually make things worse for people diagnosed with breast cancer, is especially egregious, even for him.
At least he’s declared Oct. 15-21 “National Character Counts Week.”