Visco, like Susan Love, MD, another prominent advocate who supports the new guidelines, declined to be interviewed for this article. In fact, people often hesitate to criticize Komen on the record, in part because the organization’s enormous wealth makes so many programs possible. Privately, however, some say Komen’s unwavering focus on screening has come at the expense of efforts to better investigate environmental causes or more generously fund treatment for poor women. Some charge, moreover, that Komen accepts too much money from companies that manufacture mammogram machines, make the powerful and sometimes dangerous drugs used in breast-cancer treatment or otherwise have a vested interest in finding and treating the disease, not preventing it. (In response, a Komen spokeswoman says, “In a nutshell, no. Our policies limit pharmaceutical funding, and it can’t be used to fund specific scientific research. We also do not endorse any medical product or treatment sold by a corporate partner of the organization.”)
There’s one charge that Brinker’s critics have been public about: that by blanketing the country, and now the world, with pink, Komen is putting a mask of ladylike stoicism and compulsory good cheer over the suffering and the politics that affect women’s access to treatment. On these grounds the feminist writer and breast-cancer survivor Barbara Ehrenreich has dubbed pink-minded groups such as Komen the “ladies’ auxiliary to the -cancer-industrial complex.”
“The question is, What face do you put on this disease?” says Barbara Brenner, executive director of the advocacy group Breast Cancer Action, which distributes buttons that read cancer sucks. “Komen’s response is, We’re fine. Just put a pink face on it, and we’ll all be great. Ours is, The system isn’t working. Let’s change it.”
The “too much pink” criticisms rankle Brinker. It isn’t so much that they’re personal—which they are, a repudiation of her elegant self-presentation and a swipe at the small-government, pro-business Republicanism she learned from her father. It’s more that Brinker passionately believes in the importance of both her message and the medium through which it’s delivered. Talking “pink,” or domesticating breast cancer, is the only way, she thinks, to start conversations among people who would rather push the subject under the rug. For Brinker, keeping her spirits up is part of the job, and as with any difficult task she’s faced in her life, she succeeds by working at it very hard. “If we weren’t positive,” she says, “I would probably long ago have said, ‘There’s nothing I can do,’ and rolled over in desolation. You can’t do that. You’ve got to keep going.”
It’s that constant battle between light and dark—that tension between hope and desolation captured in the staircase painting in Palm Beach—that describes the mood of Brinker’s life right now as she braces for a new fund-raising effort and strives to maintain some sense of home in a life that’s increasingly peripatetic. On balance, however, she says her personal sacrifices for the cause have been more than worth it. “In many ways I’ve never been this happy,” she says. “I’ve learned to be alone. I enjoy what I do. My work fuels me. All this—even sometimes the sadness—fuels me. One thing I’ve learned is, if I ever have a day where I feel sad, I immediately engage in my work, and within 15 minutes I feel great again.” You can dispute the benefits of mammography. You can disagree with Brinker’s politics, question the motives of her corporate sponsors. But what you can’t do is paint Brinker with the brush of mindless pink thinking. The woman behind the ribbons has earned her pink power the hard way. She works at it every day of her life.
Judith Warner’s most recent book is We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of More.