Let me just preface this by saying I understand that not everyone shares identical goals. I also understand that when they share goals it may look different to one person than it does to another – or me. That’s why Less Cancer works with everyone, why we avoid the politics as we work to stop cancer before it even takes root. It’s why as founders of National Cancer Prevention Day, on Feb. 4, we have communities across American looking to include prevention in the cancer conversation.
Not long ago, I wrote something about taking a look at cancer prevention and what it really looked like. I wrote that getting a handle on reducing the risk of cancer will require everyone to live differently. Shifting to prevention requires us to reorder how our culture prioritizes money, human health and the environment. As a culture, we have looked the other way as profit rose above human health and the environment.
When we started our organization in 2004, we knew because of simple Internet searches that the phrase “less cancer” was rarely, if ever, used. The two words – “less” and “cancer” – almost never appeared in the same paragraph, much less side-by-side. The idea of prevention was pretty new, and the focus had always been on fighting cancer, on beating it. Never on Less Cancer.
Recently, I stumbled across a news item about a bald Barbie doll, made by Mattel and inspired by a grassroots movement and online petition. I am grateful to Mattel for the “bald” Barbie, which certainly will comfort children losing their hair.
Not to take away from the good work and intentions of the people putting this doll out, but the doll strikes me as an unbearably sad monument to children with cancer. We now actually need a bald Barbie. Cancer-aware toys? For me, the bald Barbie symbolizes the work that still needs doing. Let’s make it so we don’t need a post-chemotherapy doll. Too much cancer. Too many children. It’s not supposed to be this way. We set the goal to reduce cancer in 2004, and the doll shows how far we have yet to travel.
Childhood leukemia and brain cancer have increased sharply in incidence. Between 1975 and 2004, among children 14 years and younger, primary brain cancer increased by nearly 40 percent and leukemia by over 60 percent. Cancer is now the second leading cause of death for children in the US, exceeded only by injury.(Mt. Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center)
While researching bald Barbie, the stream of information diverted me to another story. I came across the American Cancer Society blog “Choose You.” When you sign up there, you receive a flower pin as a reminder to women of the organization’s new commitment to health. I thought, “Great, they are getting on board to raise cancer prevention awareness. They are putting out information that can actually reduce health risks.”
Soon, though, I noticed this on on the site: the Society began recruiting, in 1959, 1 million men and women to help uncover the harmful effects of smoking on health. Participation also led to a better understanding of the harms of being overweight and obesity.
That confused me. If in 1959 we understood obesity was a health risk, why has childhood obesity in the United States more than tripled between the 1970′s and 2004? What happened?
It’s confusing because we know the Department of Health and Human Services reports that food and beverage advertisers collectively spend $10 to $12 billion annually to reach children and youth. More than $1 billion is spent on media advertising to children, and another $4.5 billion is spent on youth-targeted public relations. Wait, there’s more: $3 billion is spent on packaging designed for children.
Enter SPRITE, the sponsor branded on the American Cancer Society’s “You Choose” landing page.
SPRITE is a Coca-Cola product, according to the Livestrong website (a site that also reports on nutritional merits of McDonald’s… seemingly an oxymoron). A 12-oz. can of Coca-Cola Classic contains 41 g of sugars, according to the Harvard School of Public Health, or HSPH. Put another way, a can of Coke contains about 10 tsp. of sugar.
Anyway, one part of me wants to high-five the American Cancer Society for working to reduce calorie intake at a time when so many people are struggling with obesity.
Then there’s this: upon seeing the Sprite Zero logo, I also noticed a FACTS page about aspartame. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I felt the disappointment well up inside. I wondered what this confusing and controversial issue of aspartame was doing on the American Cancer Society site. This site is for women. Does anyone really know all the effects of aspartame on the fetus, much less a fully-baked adult? Maybe so. Maybe they have all the answers they need.
Clearly, this is no accident that the soda maker, an ACS prevention blog sponsor, also has a fact page on aspartame. Is this a campaign for SPRITE or really about cancer prevention? Is this any different than Kentucky Fried Chicken or Pepperidge Farm sponsoring Susan G Komen Race for the Cure? Do any of these sponsorships really pass the red face test?
In any case, SPRITE ZERO does not seem to be a Less Cancer drink choice. It does not strike me as a beverage to reduce risk.
But maybe this is the way we should be doing business? I stare at the branding – no doubt, pricey – and wonder what Phillip Morris would pay to teach our non-smoking programs. What if I got McDonald’s to teach our nutrition classes? Who would that help? What would that prevent?
I wonder if we are all walking the walk and talking the talk. I do not think so.