Breast cancer activist Barbara Brenner, who died on May 10 at age 61 in San Francisco, refused to wear a pink ribbon. As she told a newspaper interviewer back in 1996, she already wore a symbol of her concern about the disease: a horizontal scar across her chest. But more important, she was offended by what she saw as an empty feel-good gesture. “They’re trying to turn breast cancer into a safe thing,” she railed. “Just get a wig and get your makeup redone. It has become chic.” The fact, she said, was that too many women were dying of the disease. “The sooner we tell the truth, the sooner we will end this disease.”
As longtime director of the militant, confrontational group Breast Cancer Action, Brenner did her best to speak truth to power. (“We serve no purpose in being nice,” she explained to Ms. magazine in 2005.) When she thought they deserved it, Brenner didn’t hesitate to lambaste health care providers, pharmaceutical companies, politicians, corporate polluters she saw as being linked to cancer, and even other breast cancer activists she thought were making unacceptable compromises. In the early 2000s, under her leadership, BCA launched the provocative “Think Before You Pink“ campaign, which urged consumers to be skeptical of companies that put pink ribbons on their products and proclaimed that they were donating a portion of the proceeds to breast cancer research. Many of the companies, Brenner and BCA charged, weren’t really contributing much, while others — cosmetics manufacturers, for example — made products that the activist group said contained chemicals linked to breast cancer.
She also argued, in this 2011 blog post, that it was time to get rid of the pink ribbon and replace it with “one that actually conveys the impact of the disease on people’s lives and that doesn’t lend itself so readily to corporate exploitation or to covering up the realities of the breast cancer.”
Brenner’s obstreperousness rubbed some people the wrong way, but when the dust had cleared, it often turned out that she was in the right. She attacked what she saw as overpromotion of mammograms, warning that the benefits of spotting treatable cancers was negated in part by the risks of exposure to cancer-causing radiation. In 2012, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a government advisory group, changed its position and began recommending fewer of the tests. In another instance, she attacked the Food and Drug Administration’s fast-tracking of a drug, Avastin, that she charged had harmful side effects without really extending breast cancer patients’ lives. Eventually, the FDA revoked approval of the drug for use in treating breast cancer, though it continued to be used for other purposes.
Here’s a 2009 video in which Brenner criticizes medical journals for publishing articles that actually were written by drug company ghostwriters.
Brenner continued to advocate aggressively, even as she battled a new enemy: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive and ultimately lethal disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. After leaving her post at BCA in 2010, she continued to tweak the status quo in her blog, Healthy Barbs, until shortly before her death. In one of her final posts in April, she castigated California legislators for passing a law that required women whose mammograms revealed dense breast tissue to get an official notice, even though 4o percent of women have that condition and its link to breast cancer is tenuous. “I would call this silly legislation, but that is a redundant phrase for far too much that the legislature does,” she chided. As her partner, Suzanne Lampert, told the New York Times: ““I always told her that I would make sure her obituary said she died after a long battle with the breast cancer industry.”
Photo: Breast Cancer Action
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