Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Selling Hope

There's been a lot of talk recently in the breast cancer blogosphere about language and how it's used in the breast cancer culture.  Uneasy Pink's post on "Word Matters", Being Sarah with her post, "What's the Word?", and The Accidental Amazon's post, "A Lump By Any Other Name" provided excellent commentary on the issue, and generated much discussion amongst readers.

Well, I'd like to throw one more word out there as the subject of today's post.

Yes it's a tattoo

  1. to desire with expectation of obtainment
  2. to expect with confidence
In the cancer culture, "hope" is a word that carries a lot of power and emotion when uttered in the context of cancer patients and their desire to be healed from their disease by the miracle cure that everyone wants to believe will be forthcoming within their lifetime. 

And in the breast cancer culture particularly, "hope" is a concept that holds plenty of marketing cache' for the savvy corporations looking to make a buck off society's hope for a world free of breast cancer.

You can purchase a "Facets of Hope Breast Cancer Awareness Bracelet" for the bargain price of $99 where;
"Companionship, courage and love today; hope for a cure tomorrow. That's the heartfelt message that this Facets of Hope crystal bracelet expresses to everyone, whenever you wear it to show your compassion and support for those who face the challenges of breast cancer."
Except just be sure to read the attached warning label which, although legally only required by the State of California, should probably be read by anyone  considering buying this bracelet.
"California Proposition 65 WARNING for lead crystal: To enhance optical clarity, the crystal in this product contains lead, a chemical substance known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm."   
 My hope is that nobody buys this ridiculous piece of pink-ribbon schlock, since it's production might actually contribute to increasing cancer incidence, and purchasing it doesn't really feed my hopes that we'll have a "cure tomorrow".

In the U.S., Susan G. Komen for the Cure®, the nation's largest breast cancer fundraiser, has a commercially vested interest in this concept of "hope", as do their corporate partners, evidenced by the following examples of campaigns undertaken in recent years.  We've seen Komen trademark the phrase "For The Cure" and enforce it's legal rights over anyone else deigning to use such phrasing in their fundraising efforts.  I wonder if we're going to see a similar scenario unfold for the word "hope" when used in the context of breast cancer?

DOVE® Chocolate: Promises of Hope: 
Susan G. Komen for the Cure is proud to be the beneficiary of DOVE® Chocolate Promises of Hope™.  DOVE® Chocolate Promises of Hope™ feature messages of hope and inspirations written by breast cancer survivors. These messages capture the strength, compassion and voice of women who have overcome the battle of their lives.
 MMG Corporation
Susan G. Komen for the Cure® is proud to partner with MMG Corporation for their “Knots for Hope” campaign to support the vision of a world without breast cancer. The Knots for Hope collection of 100 percent silk ties featuring the Susan G. Komen for the Cure signature running ribbon logo will be available at www.Macys.com,  Belk Stores, Boscov's, Lord & Taylor, Macy's, Nexcom, Peebles, Stein Mart, Veteran's Canteen, and select TJ Maxx and Marshall’s stores nationwide. 
 Smiles of Hope ® toothbrush
Susan G. Komen for the Cure is pleased to partner with Cause Care, LLC in the breast cancer movement.  From August 15, 2008 through August 15, 2010, Cause Care will sell a specially designed Smiles of Hope ® toothbrush through various retailers nationwide to benefit Komen for the Cure. 
 Susan G. Komen for the Cure®, Seattle branch, is also the recipient of a portion of proceeds from sales of the Walther P-22 Hope Edition gun from Discount Gun Sales LLC in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Yes that's right, a "Hope" gun.
Does this gun accurately represent 
your hopes for a world free of breast cancer? 
It just makes me hope for better gun control laws in this country.
The Hope Bear
And the slick marketing campaigns go on ad nauseum with many, many examples to be found, where "hope" is the primary focus of campaigns designed to tug on the heartstrings of ordinary citizens to buy products that support the desires of breast cancer patients everywhere to receive the miracle of a cure.  The message is simple.  If you buy this product, then you invest in "hope", and what better way to show you care about breast cancer?  This is all very nice, but does the average person really know where their dollars are going when they cuddle that Hope bear, drink that Hope wine, or shoot that Hope gun?  They hope that their dollars are going to the right place, but is that enough?

"Hope" as a marketing strategy is not limited to corporate America alone.

The Cancer Treatment Centers of America, a network of cancer hospitals, actually have a website devoted entirely to this concept of "hope" called "The Journey of Hope", an online resource for cancer patients and their families seeking spiritual support.  Indeed, you can even train to be a "Hope Navigator"  so that.... "As you minister to cancer patients and their families, you help them find hope for their journey … hope spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically. Hope for a successful battle against cancer."

The American Cancer Society offers their Hope Lodge service which provides free accommodation to cancer patients and their families and "is a place created to ease the burden of cancer treatment - a place where we give hope a home."  In addition, they have a charity campaign called "Give Hope" where "we all have reason to hope for a world with less cancer and more birthdays".

But what does "hope" really look like for someone dealing with a cancer diagnosis? Hope that the cancer is not too advanced and responds to treatment? Hope that the cancer doesn't come back?  Hope that we get to live out our dreams? Hope for a miracle cure? Hope that future generations won't have to worry about developing cancer? Hope that we won't die a painful and premature death?

Hope, it seems, is everywhere, especially in the breast cancer culture.  But is it really? Or do we just hide behind a mountain of pink-ribbon laden merchandise oozing syrupy hopeful messages, trusting that our purchases and donations will make all the difference and that corporate and benevolent America will deliver on the hopes of every breast cancer patient? Or are we being sold on false hope?  Perhaps,  the reality is that we are just hoping against hope, a state in which we hope without any basis for expecting fulfillment, because if we don't have hope then what else is there?

There are so many dynamics to "hope"in the context of cancer and yet what evidence do we really have to think that "hope" alone will save us?  It won't.  It's not enough to simply hope.  What we must to do is keep critically questioning.  Why does the incidence of cancer keep rising unchecked? Why have cancer mortality rates remain largely unchanged for decades? Where is the cancer research focus? Where are all those cancer fundraising dollars really going? Are we simply pouring money into more cancer awareness and education campaigns at the expense of funding potentially game-changing cancer research?   When will the government make cancer research funding a top priority? When will governments realize, that in setting law and policy, they can address key issues that will result in cancer prevention? What else can we be doing to aid the fight?

And what about my hope? As someone living with metastatic breast cancer, the statistics of my disease are frightening and offer very little in terms of "hope";

(Statistical information sourced from MetaVivor and Metastatic Breast Cancer Network).
  • It's estimated there are currently 162,000 women in the U.S. living with metastatic breast cancer 
  • 90% of cancer deaths result from stage IV cancer, but only 2% of research funds are devoted to stage IV cancer research.
  • In developed countries, nearly 30% of women with early stage breast will go on to develop metastatic breast cancer
  • Only 27% of patients whose breast cancer has spread to other organs survive five years
  • Median survival after diagnosis is three years with no statistically significant improvement in the past twenty years
  • The number of Americans who lose their lives to metastatic breast cancer is about 40,000 per year, a number that has changed little in decades.
  • Far too many patients must face their challenges with little to no support. Most programs focus on wellness and recovery, avoiding any reference to stage IV. 
  • Breast cancer is the most common kind of cancer in women, and the leading cause of cancer death for women worldwide, with nearly half a million deaths every year.
So where do my hopes lie?
  • I hope that I can continue to defy the grim statistics that come with my disease.
  • I hope that, sooner rather than later, metastatic cancer will be given the research priority and funding that it needs, so that we too stand a chance to live long and productive lives.
  • I hope that we will move away from cause-based product marketing and consumerism that has become so ingrained in our collective psyche', so that we can be sure that every dollar we invest in "hope" for a cancer-free world is directed to meaningful and potentially life-saving research.
  • I hope that I can expect positive change in the way we confront cancer to happen within my lifetime.  
  • I hope that I can still have real hope.


  1. Anna, I love your rants. So smart and always an eye opener. I wish I had words to make things better, but since I don't, I would like to add another word to go along with hope. One I turn to daily. Believe. We have to.

  2. Oh Stacey how I want to believe and how I want to hope, but I need to see real evidence of progress in this fight to end cancer. It's why I must keep ranting and must keep questioning.

  3. You make so many good points! I am very wary these days when I see a "pink" product. Your post reminds me of Barbara Ehrenriech's article "Welcome to Cancerland". I think you would enjoy what she has to say. Keep on ranting and keep on questioning! My mom lived with mets for years, and she wrote this on my blog after she read Welcome to Cancerland: 'We need to know the cause, not just create the warm and fuzzy images of "survival".'

  4. brilliant, as always.

    i have to say that i did learn a lot about hope when i was dealing with my brother dying of metastatic prostate cancer. i was not surrounded by these hideous examples of the commodification of hope, so it was easier to just learn the spiritual lessons of the bargains we make: i hope he can be cured, i hope he responds to this treatment, i hope that this experimental drug works, i hope they can manage his pain, i hope that he can find peace in stopping treatment, i hope he realizes how much we love him as he leaves us behind...

    i never stopped hoping for *something*, and the hope became a focus and a source of strength. it was always disappointing to have to let go of one hope and trade it in for another, but hope was always there.

  5. Welcome Ginny Marie! I read Barbara's article a couple of years ago and really it was life changing in how it articulated what had been rolling around in my head for years. Selling the pink-ribbon version of hope is one thing, but having hope with a real expectation of fulfillment is another matter entirely. That's what I'm fighting for in writing this blog.

    ChemoBabe, thanks for your raw honesty with this comment. I have to hope that I'm wrong about all of this, and fortunately I still have many options that may give me reason to hope. But really we are in a dire situation with cancer in this country and we need to put meaningful action behind this notion of "hope", rather than just selling it.

  6. it's strange, i don't live with hope, cancer has crossed hope only one time: just before a friend's death (BC, of course...), a big large enormous one! Hope and cancer don't go together well, it becomes catastrophic when there are mixed in a merchandising package. Hope: it's life without lies :)

  7. Indeed, Cathie, indeed. How can we honestly think that we can package hope, tie it up with a nice little pink ribbon and sell it? Thanks for your comment.

  8. This post gets at the heart of the matter for me - selling hope for the purpose of sales; selling a brand of hope that does not carry with it the conditions that would enable the expectation to accompany the dream.

    Sure, we all need hope in our personal lives, and I think chemobabe is right on that we we trade hope for hope in the thick of things, and that we learn our own lessons about hope when we face the morbid lessons of life.

    But selling hope? Having a marketing team create a storyboard of hope and accompanying image to touch my emotions so that I'll open my purse and buy something I don't need...that doesn't feel like hope to me. It feels like capitalism veiled as hope.

  9. Anna,

    Everything we love and hold sacred has been commercialized in one way or other -- cancer is no exception. And breast cancer, especially more so. This reflects our society's complete fixation on physical appearance, its ability to make money off of anything for good or bad, and the unfortunate fact that somewhere -- people are buying these products with the belief that they are making a difference. So I see the commercialization of cancer as one topic.

    The sacred vessel of hope, though, is another topic entirely. I could not live without hope, and the possibility to stuff as much living as I can into the time I have here on earth. Wendy Harpham, MD, a nonHodgkins lymphoma survivor put this on terms I find realistic and comforting by defining the difference between expectation and hope. She said that she might expect her cancer to recur; but she would always be hopeful for the best possible outcome. That line speaks to me, not just about my cancer, but surely about Steve's, which has a habit of recurring every time we get comfortable. I can expect that his caner might recur again; and I will always hope that this next round of procedures will take care of his cancer once and for all.

    Lousy products claiming to embody something I hold precious don't hold a candle to the real thing that hope, and live, and love, mean for millions of survivors. 28 million worldwide.

    Another awesome post:)

    With love and thanks,

  10. Gayle - I think you've very neatly summed up what makes me so mad when I see "hope" being hijacked for the purposes of profits, and profits only. It taints an emotion, that I believe should be kept sacred and is a deeply personal state of being. As you say to think there are teams of people sitting around boardroom tables and storyboards coming up with new ways to exploit this feeling for profits, is to me, completely reprehensible and an insult to those of us living this life.

    Jody - thank you for these wonderful words of wisdom. My issue with all of this is that the commercialization of cancer has crossed the line. It is creating a feeling of cynicism and distrust, that is taking away the real meaning of so many of these terms that we use in the cancer culture. However, like you, I still do have hope, balanced with realistic expectations of course, and I too want to "stuff as much living in" as I can. Thanks for your lovely comment.

  11. Great post Anna, thank you. You've stimulated a very interesting discussion here. In my own treatment for breast cancer I have hoped many, many times - I ask hopefully about procedures, I hope that it will not be painful. I hope it will be the last time, I have hoped this before. I secretly hoped I would feel better. I hope next year is different. I hope for a good result.... and so on. But it is my personal hope here, and it is sacred, very much so - it is quite a different thing to use it for profit. Thank you all for helping clarify this for me.

  12. Anna, Thanks for another eye opening rant! Sometimes I feel so torn by this hope thing. I want to be hopeful. I try to be hopeful. I hope this year is better than my last. I hope I get more years on this planet. I hope I don't die a miserable death like my mom. I have so many hopes. But I also really hate it when hope is packaged like a commodity. I want more than hope. I want a cure for this darn disease or at least more work on an attempt. I'm all for hope, but I want scientific advancement. I guess my problem with hope is, it's an intangible thing and I want something concrete, real hope. Does that make sense? Guess I started ranting a bit myself.

  13. Thanks for your comments Sarah and Nancy. Real hope is exactly what I want as well, and it just drives me mad seeing that sacred, intangible, thing packaged and sold like any other bit of meaningless stuff. The problem is, that commoditizing hope isn't changing anything. In fact, I think it's eroding hope. Because the more money we pour into these useless trinkets, the less money is available for that research that might provide that real hope.


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