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Sexy breast cancer campaigns anger many patients

3:00 AM, Oct 31, 2012   |    comments
This poster is for a breast cancer fundraiser called Save 2nd Base, hosted by Tao restaurant in Las Vegas. (Photo: Handout)
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Liz Szabo, USA TODAY
Many breast cancer survivors say a crop of pink-ribbon campaigns have hit a new low -- by sexualizing breast cancer.

An online porn site this month has been using breast cancer to increase its Web traffic by offering to donate 1 cent for every 30 views of its videos. The intended recipient for the donation, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, rejected the offer and instructed the site to stop using its name.

Yet pornographers are only the most extreme example of a disturbing trend: using sex to sell breast cancer -- or simply get attention, say Gayle Sulik, author of Pink Ribbon Blues. Sulik, who recently lost a friend to the disease, notes that magazines and advertising campains now routinely use topless young women to illustrate a disease whose average victims are in their 60s.

"I don't see the porn site to be much different from the 'Feel your boobies' T-shirts," says Sulik, referring to the Pennsylvania-based Feel Your Boobies Foundation. "It sexually objectifies women, trivializes breast cancer . . . and uses the objectified woman as window dressing for the profit-making machine."

Newer cancer groups are embracing slogans such as "Save the Ta-Tas" and "I Love Boobies" in the name of humor and reaching out to a younger, less conservative audience. Other groups say they're trying to stand out from the crowd of public service announcements that arrive every October, during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

A poster for the "Save 2nd Base" fundraiser at Tao restaurant in Las Vegas last month, for example, depicted a curvy model in a string bikini, noting "everyone in pink bathing suits receives open bar." An online version of the ad went viral, spread by outraged cancer survivors. The Las Vegas restaurant did not return phone calls for this story.

Although proceeds were to benefit Komen, the cancer group's spokeswoman Andrea Rader says Komen hasn't heard how much was raised, and won't accept the donation. Rader says the Las Vegas restaurant was supposed to get Komen's approval before launching the ads, but did not. "We would never have approved that," Rader says. Rader notes that Komen, which has been criticized for its "cause marketing" partnerships with companies such as KFC, disapproves of coy language for body parts. "We just say 'breasts,'" Rader says.

Breast cancer survivor Kathi Kolb used her skill with computer graphics to create an alternative "2nd Base" poster on her blog, the Accidental Amazon. Kolb's version makes the bikini model look more like a real cancer patient: with a catheter port in her chest, a prosthesis in her bra and a compression sleeve on her arm to prevent swelling.

"It's thinly disguised prurience," says Kolb, 58. "The average guy may be moderately obsessed with breasts, but any guy who's ever known any woman with breast cancer, the last thing he thinks is that breast cancer is sexy."

Kolb says she's been disgusted by sexy breast cancer campaigns for years, noting that many companies are manipulating customers' compassion for commercial gain. But this year, she says, "is worse than ever."

But Kimmy McAtee, spokeswoman for the Keep A Breast Foundation, says its "I Love Boobies!" campaign aims to "speak to young people in their own voice about a subject that is often scary and taboo." T-shirts and bracelets "speak directly to our target audience in a way that is authentic, inspiring and refreshing. We always want to take a positive approach to breast cancer awareness, rather than a funny or sexy one."

Even mainstream groups, such as the American Cancer Society, are using humor to get their message across. "It's OK to look at our chests," the society announces, with videos showing close-ups of women's chests. On a site called makingstrideswalk.org/boobs, the society announces that a fundraising walk "was created to focus on breasts, and women are glad their chest has our undivided attention."

The American Cancer Society says the "boobs" video was created to get people's attention. In a written statement, the society said, "People are exposed to a wide variety of breast cancer information during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, and this video was intended to break through the clutter to capture the attention of social media users, who we want to encourage to spread the word about an important message: empowering women to take control of their breast health and fight back in their communities."

Breast cancer survivor Lani Horn, 41, from Nashville, says these groups are missing the point. "All of us are really fed up," Horn says. "Save the tatas? No, save the women. A lot of us had to give up our tatas to live."

Karuna Jagger, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group, says, "The implicit message in these campaigns is that it is breasts that are sexy; sexy is what is important; and we should care about breast cancer because it takes those lovely, sexy breasts out of the world . . . Every October, the stunts just gets more bizarre and further removed from what's needed for this epidemic."

Horn, who blogs at chemobabe.com, scoffs at the notion that campaigns such "Feel Your Boobies" educate women about breast self-exams.

While many women with cancer do find breast lumps themselves, that tends to happen more by accident, such as while getting dressed, than during formal self-exams. Medical authorities such as the American Cancer Society and U.S. Preventive Services Task Force no longer promote monthly breast self-exams.

Overall, teaching women to do structured monthly self-exams causes more harm than good; it doesn't save lives, but does cause needless worry, says physician Virginia Moyer, chair of the federal task force. "This doesn't mean women shouldn't be 'breast-aware,' but it does mean that we know that clinicians spending time teaching the techniques of breast exam and promoting its uptake is a poor use of time," Moyer says.

Yet ogling-as-fundraising isn't limited to the USA.

A British group, Coppafeel!, urges women to do a "boob check." In an imitation of Janet Jackson's infamous Rolling Stone cover, Coppafeel has been promoting its campaign with images of a topless member of the Spice Girls, Mel B, and her husband, Stephen Belafonte, who clutches her breasts.

A French website called Boobstragram encourages women to post photos of themselves in a bra, advising, "showing your boobs on the web is good; showing them to your doctor is better."

Writer Peggy Orenstein, who has been treated for breast cancer twice, says she's appalled at what is being marketed on behalf of "women like me."

The new campaigns do real harm, she says, by reinforcing the image that breasts are a woman's most valued asset. That only increases the pain suffered by women who undergo mastectomies, Orenstein says.

"On one hand, women with cancer are told -- or have to learn -- that we are not our breasts, that our sexuality, our femininity are not located in the mammary gland," Orenstein says. "That's a complicated, sometimes painful reckoning. Then these organizations come along and reinforce the notion that boobs are the most important things about us, particularly if they're hot and apparently most particularly if they're actually fake."

When diagnosed with aggressive cancer at age 38, Horn says, saving her breasts was the last thing on her mind. All she could think about, she says, was staying alive for her three young children. "Every time I thought, 'I can't climb back into that chemo chair,' I thought, 'I have to be able to tell my kids, 'I did everything possible.'"

The new breed of ads is especially cruel, Horn says, because breast cancer strips women of many features associated with femininity and beauty. Chemotherapy and surgery to remove the ovaries can both improve a woman's odds of survival, but at the cost of plunging her into instant menopause.

Chemo can make women lose their hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. Radiation can leave women's chests feeling, as one survivor has described it, like "a raw piece of meat."

And beyond the chemo-induced nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, Horn says, long-term hormonal therapy can cause severe vaginal dryness, making intercourse too painful to contemplate. While many cancer survivors want more information about preserving their fertility and alleviating sexual side effects, very few get help, Horn says.

Cancer "doesn't make you feel terribly sexy. Pain is not terribly sexy," Horn says. "There's a cruelty to this, when you're in danger of losing the very sexuality that they're selling."

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