The NFL's 'A Crucial Catch,' in addition to being an eyesore, is a craven PR campaign designed to sell tickets and build goodwill among female fans (reminder: only 8% of the money it raises actually goes to breast cancer research). But perhaps its worst sin is that the information it's distributing to millions of women is simply not true.
As we head into this year's Breast Cancer Awareness Month, some advocates are warning that it's important for well-meaning consumers to turn a critical eye to cause marketing before they whip out their credit cards. Some companies behind "breast cancer awareness" products barely raise anything at all for research. Others shill products products that actually contribute to breast cancer. And others fish for goodwill by spreading soothing misinformation that actually harms women.
The group Breast Cancer Action, long a critical voice in the visual cacophony of Pinktober, has even put together a treatise calling out the most blatant offenders in the the breast cancer awareness industry.
Topping this year's list? The NFL. How shocking that an organization so keenly attuned to the needs of women would do something harmful.
The main problem with A Crucial Catch, says Karuna Jaggar, Executive Director of BCA, is that it sticks to the narrative that early detection saves lives, an oft-repeated mantra of what Jaggar calls the "mainstream breast cancer industry." Except, if you take a look at the largest study on mammography to date, that empowering, feel-good rallying cry is actually proven false. Early detection using screening mammography machines does not increase the survival rate of breast cancer. Earlier this year, Jaggar wrote of the study,
The latest study in The BMJ adds to the evidence from a number of studies finding little benefit to routinely screening healthy middle-aged women at average risk of breast cancer. Furthermore, these same studies have found there are significant harms to aggressively screening the general population for cancer.
The recent Canadian study, involving 90,000 women followed over 25 years in a randomized trial, found that efforts to find breast cancers before they could be felt as a lump in the breast, using screening mammography, did not lead to lower death rates for average-risk women in their 40s and 50s. At the same time, around one in five of the cancers that were found through screening would not have required treatment were it not for the mammogram: resulting in overdiagnosis and overtreatment as these women underwent surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy to treat non-life threatening cancers.
But don't take her word for it. Here's an op-ed from a member of the Swiss Medical Board published in the New England Journal of Medicine:
It is easy to promote mammography screening if the majority of women believe that it prevents or reduces the risk of getting breast cancer and saves many lives through early detection of aggressive tumors.4 We would be in favor of mammography screening if these beliefs were valid. Unfortunately, they are not, and we believe that women need to be told so. From an ethical perspective, a public health program that does not clearly produce more benefits than harms is hard to justify. Providing clear, unbiased information, promoting appropriate care, and preventing overdiagnosis and overtreatment would be a better choice.
What saves lives, Jaggar explained to Jezebel, is not early detection, but access to quality medical care for treatment of breast cancer, and real, evidence-based information on risks and treatments after a diagnosis. This is what the research and the science shows actually works.
But you're not going to see the NFL — and its many, many corporate sponsors — actually pour money into researching the environmental causes of breast cancer or advocating for universally available and affordable high-quality medical care for breast cancer patients of all economic statuses.
In fact, the NFL and other corporate pinkwashers have a fiscal interest in pushing the "early detection is key" lie on women, because some corporations — like occasional NFL corporate partner GE — actually make the machines that perform the early screenings A Crucial Catch is pushing. Others manufacture products using chemicals that have been linked to cancer. "Companies shouldn't be shaping the messages around public health. Public health officials should be," Jaggar says. She calls A Crucial Catch and other campaigns like it "fearmongering combined with false promises."
"A woman in her twenties has about the same chance of getting breast cancer as a man in his seventies," Jaggar added, paraphrasing Peggy Orenstein. "But you don't see old men encouraged to 'save their boobies.'"
Image via A Crucial Catch