The Futility of Pinktober

Every year, during Pinktober, I worry that we’ve lost sight of the reality of breast cancer. This year I have a writer crush on S. Lochlainn Jain, an associate professor at UC Santa Cruz and author of Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us. In a few well-chosen statistics, Jain shows the heartbreak of breast cancer and the futility of our obsession with “the cure.”

“The numbers really are staggering. Just to take an example of one cancer: 200,000 new diagnoses and 41,000 annual deaths of breast cancer each year in the United States, a million or more American women living with it who have no idea they are ill. More than 6,000 women under the age of 49 dead of the disease each year — more than the number of AIDS-related deaths at the height of the crisis, and twice that of the annual deaths of polio at the height of that crisis. And yet the response has not been to reconsider the costs of our economic and environmental decisions but to concentrate of that elusive thing: the Cure. The promise of the curable disease, the triumphant figure of the survivor, and the rhetoric of hope all serve as part of the rhetorical work of maintaining a belief in the preciousness of each individual life. The bad faith, though, reveals itself in contradictions: the statistics built from drug trials on the one hand point out how far we are from a cure and on the other harbor the possibility that cure is possible. And yet, as researchers such as Robert Proctor argue, very little basic research on cancer is being done. One might reasonably conclude that the rhetoric of hope for a cure papers-over the actuality that after all these years, for many cancers chemotherapy treatments have improved very little, and they have improved survival rates only marginally, if at all.

This excerpt appears as a footnote in Jain’s essay “Living in Prognosis: Toward an Elegiac Politics,”