February 25, 2014

Betty Ford

Betty Ford

As recently as the early 1970s, millions of Americans couldn”€™t say the word “€œcancer”€ out loud, let alone “€œbreast.”€

Although All in the Family had broached the taboo topic in 1973, it was still a big deal a year later when new First Lady Betty Ford announced matter of factly that she’d undergone a mastectomy for breast cancer. She urged other women to get tested for the disease. They did, in droves.

Whether or not this is a net positive depends upon your opinion of 20th-century allopathic medicine: Either “countless daughters, mothers, and grandmothers were saved from certain death just in time” or”€”uttered in one’s best Dr. McCoy voice”€”“who knows how many women were poisoned and tortured by glorified witch doctors to add a few miserable, mutilated years to their lives? Dammit, Jim!

And since those particular years encompassed the subsequent Carter Administration (plus the Pet Rock, Dr. Scholl’s Exercise Sandals, and KC and the Sunshine Band), I’m kinda with Bones on this one.

Luckily, not all of Betty Ford’s campaigns achieved such traction. (Remember the Equal Rights Amendment?) Nevertheless, she helped propagate a freak mutation of old-fashioned civic duty that’s outlasted Earth Shoes and Billy Beer: that species of empty-calorie activism known as “raising awareness.”

“€œMammograms sometimes squish existing tumors and spread those cancerous cells even farther. Genius!”€

Ford’s original low-key yet candid breast-cancer campaign now seems quaintly Shaker-like in its simplicity. Inevitably, that particular cause has metastasized into a tacky, inescapable industry it’s tempting to dub Big Boob, a subsidiary of the Bourgeois Disease Complex.

Old and tired? Little pink lapel ribbons and the occasional fun run. New hotness? “Limited edition” pink cars, Cuisinarts, and other  deeply dubious “fundraising” goodies.

A bunch of newish books (and lots of whistle-blowing articles dating back well over a decade) have examined Big Boob and found it not so benign. Breast Cancer Action’s counter-campaign called “Think Before You Pink” condemns “pinkwashing” as shallow consumerism, a cynical exercise in corporate image-burnishing and shameless profiteering. (Note that “Susan G. Komen” is now a registered trademark.)

Others point out that heart disease and strokes kill more women than breast cancer, that deadlier but less trendy cancers receive fewer research dollars, and that men’s cancers were getting screwed up the butt until that gimmicky “Movember” drive came along.

And come on: News programs only run breast-cancer specials as an excuse to show tits on TV and boost their ratings, right?

Meanwhile, it looks like Big Boob’s takeaway message”€”get that mammogram, ladies!“€”is a bust as well.

Yet another study casts doubts on this forty-year-old screening technique’s effectiveness. Annual mammograms for middle-aged women apparently “don’t save lives, but instead can cause over-diagnosis of cancers that won”€™t be fatal.”

“What mammography has done,” writes one physician, “is turn healthy people into sick but grateful cancer survivors.”


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