Every April, I feel extremely conflicted when I see purple Relay for Life paraphernalia and get emails from various email lists about joining the event. Part of me gets very emotional about the idea of running in honor of those I love whose lives have been touched by cancer. The other part of me wants to explain why that’s the last thing I plan to do.

I expect to get a lot of criticism for my opinion, even though many other activists share it, so before I continue, let me explain my personal background. Cancer, for lack of a better phrase, runs in my family; I have many relatives on both sides of my family who are survivors of several different cancer types. I lost three of my four grandparents to cancer before I reached age seven. Cancer often seems like a genetic inevitability to me, so much so that when a gastroenterologist found a small tumor in my ovary, I automatically assumed it would turn out to be cancerous (it wasn’t). I have certain family members who are currently fighting battles with cancer. More than anything, I want someone to find a cure for cancer because although my family becomes a bulwark of support when someone receives a diagnosis, I am scared of losing anyone else.

Cancer organization fundraisers capitalize on the emotions of people like me. We want to do something, anything, to help our loved ones, and these events give us the perfect opportunity to do something seemingly constructive to contribute to the cause.  But how much of it is really effective? Remember that a lot of money goes to merchandising ventures (pink paraphernalia for breast cancer awareness, purple items for Relay for Life—plus a multitude of useless mugs, totes, and other minor gifts to reward donors). Should we really be turning a disease into some sort of brand? It seems to be similar to other forms of intervention in which the beneficiary of one’s charity seems to take second stage to oneself.

In addition, the kind of cancer research that receives funding rarely involves brand new, non-traditional forms of treatment that might prove more effective than more dangerous methods such as chemotherapy or risky surgery. Pharmaceutical medicines for cancer are far more likely to receive financial support than a regular round of acupuncture and natural supplements, for example. Access to medical marijuana, which has been proven to help some cancer patients manage pain, is still an uphill battle in most states. I am not suggesting that cancer organizations should stop funding traditional modes of cancer research, but I am suggesting that they should support research into less dangerous, less costly forms of treatment or prevention.

Cancer funding should also not be made into a contest; especially in these hard times, it can be difficult for most families to donate to worthy causes, and it’s very awkward to ask people you know for money when so few people have enough of it. The creation of teams that compete to reach fundraising goals or raise the most money sends the wrong message to the majority of us, who flinch at the idea of asking other people to pay our tab during a dinner outing, much less to contribute hundreds or thousands of dollars to “sponsor” us on a relay team. There are other ways for people to volunteer and help support cancer research and prevention; there are other ways to support survivors. We don’t have to make it into a team sport.

There are a lot of complicated issues involved with cancer funding and research, and it’s not as though there’s an easy solution to remedy some of the pitfalls that organizations experience. Well-known organizations like Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the leading breast cancer foundation in the United States, have faced scrutiny over the years not only for their funding policies, but also for their politics; Komen faced a severe backlash when it suggested defunding Planned Parenthood. Organizations like Komen tread in muddy waters when they start to cherry-pick which sort of activist tactics or approaches to cancer to endorse.

As Peggy Orenstein pointed out in her New York Times article “Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer,” it is not always clear whether the medical standards that we have set for prevention and care regarding cancer are even necessary or helpful; there is concern as we examine medical practices that costly tests and exams, even operations, are doing more harm than good to patients. There’s a debate over when and whether to do mammograms, pap smears, prostate exams, and other tests which doctors usually proscribe on a routine basis for adults. The same worry extends to methods of treatment. Although early detection and treatment are still emphasized pretty much universally when it comes to any type of cancer, death rates for certain types such as breast cancer remain basically the same, and types like ovarian cancer are still just as deadly.

There’s no need to go around wearing purple Relay for Life t-shirts or sporting a pink ribbon; if you’re going to donate, make sure all your money is going to the cause, not to merchandise. I applaud anyone who is racing for a cure out of support for cancer survivors; I stand with organizations that advocate cancer awareness. But we still haven’t found a “cure” or even a best-fit scenario for treatment, and the awareness campaigns have run the gamut of ways to dispense information. Cancer organizations have the responsibility to leave no stone unturned and to plunge all their available resources into every avenue of research and testing, not just those that can easily receive grant funding or that seem safe enough. Organizations that refuse to pursue those avenues or that let marketing and fundraising overpower their original mission need to set their priorities straight.

  • Catherine

    THANK YOU!!! I’ve been wanting to say this (and more) about Relay FOR YEARS, really appreciate seeing this.

  • ’14

    Totally agree.

  • Ori

    This is awesome, way to go Olivia.

  • Connecticut Scientist

    Courageous message. As an older person who sometimes visits your campus, I must say that you have picked up on my distaste for spurious campaigns and explained to me why I have generally found them distasteful.

  • Anon

    I would encourage everyone to view ‘Pink Ribbons, Inc.’, a very informative documentary, which addresses many of these concerns.


  • Alex

    You sort of had me until you pulled out the pseudoscientific alternative medicine BS. If your treatment does not meet the standards of evidence based medicine, i.e. it works, then don’t expect money for it. There’s a reason “safer” alternative treatments don’t get funding: they’re no better than placebos.

    • modern medicine’s cool, but…

      i wouldn’t be so dismissive of “pseudoscientific alternative medicine.”

      the goal of medical treatment should not just concern “beating the disease” (typically and tragically abstracted from the patient who has it), it should also be about addressing the patient’s needs as a person. in cases where evidence-based medical treatment can’t do much about disease, and also tends to seriously impoverish the life of the patient, alternative medicine is exactly where we should look for treatment direction. yes, it deserves funding.

      furthermore, alternative medicine may well be more efficacious than you realize. as any science studies major (and many others) here will tell you, evidence-based medicine has a narrower scope than commonly thought. it is not coextensive with the set of “treatments that work.” rather, like any institution it comes with entrenched norms, including funding priorities that reward treatments that fit the traditional mode and exclude those that do not. it’s a characteristically human enterprise that for all its noble sentiments has not overcome internal biases about what is “good medicine.”

  • ’14er

    I agree with you, but if you’re going to write on this topic, try to write in a strong way. There’s a lot of anger people feel about this topic that you just avoid, and you go out of your way to placate the other side of this argument. Op-eds should be brave.

  • kelli

    I agree with your points, honestly I do. However, you might want to do a little more research.

    The American Cancer Society- Relay for Life event doesn’t involve running, it’s all about walking. So I’m not sure why “part of you gets very emotional about the idea” when you clearly haven’t taken five minutes to read about Relay for Life and what’s involved. Also, the only Relay participants who wear purple shirts are survivors, so the purple shirts are not worn in support of cancer victims, but rather to identify individuals at (or around the time of) the event as survivors. They get free food and lots of pats on the back at the event. Wearing a purple to show support is a big no-no. You referencd purple shirts so I thought this was worth mentioning.

    I participated in Relay once and have no plans on doing it again (for the reasons you mention). I’m just suggesting that you delve into the subject matter a little deeper before using it as an example.