Every Spring, Tufts plays host to one of the most well-attended philanthropic activities many of us will see in our entire undergraduate career. Relay for Life, an event put on by the American Cancer Society (ACS), draws hundreds of participants. As a cancer survivor, this should be heartwarming. However, as many impartial charity watchdog sources have reported, the ACS cannot be confidently seen to represent its noble goal of advocating for a world without cancer. Rather than advancing the cause of cancer research, ACS operates in a way that is at best ineffective and at worst manipulative. While I criticize the actions and philosophy of the ACS, it must be understood that these criticisms do not extend to the students organizing Tufts Relay for Life. These individuals have devoted large quantities of time to support what is, in their view, an effective way to fund cancer research and provide communal support for individuals whose lives have been affected by the disease. It is all the more unfortunate that their good intentions have been hijacked by a profit-driven corporation whose efficacy and discretion are highly dubious.
Let’s be clear: the American Cancer Society is a definitely-for-profit nonprofit organization. While ACS functions on a volunteer-based model, the CEO still received a $2.2 million salary in 2011. In this same year, the organization reported $1.3 million in net assets despite widespread cuts to their programs. Because of this, both the American Institute of Philanthropy and Charity Watch have given the ACS a “C” rating for efficiency while the Chronicle of Philanthropy has stated that the organization is “more interested in accumulating wealth than saving lives.”
ACS takes a severely troubling stance on cancer prevention. Dr Samuel Epstein of the Cancer Prevention Coalition alleges that the organization “is fixated on damage control…diagnosis and treatment…with indifference or even hostility to cancer prevention.” ACS adopts a hard stance requiring “unequivocal human evidence on carcinogenicity” and has actively ignored the scientific consensus on the issue. Since the early 90s, ACS has opposed the notion (which has been proven in federal studies) that certain pesticide additives lead to the development of cancer. ACS is exclusively concerned with the prevention of lung cancer, but their advocacy takes the form of promoting abstinence from smoking. ACS CMO Otis Brawley has stated that lung cancer is the only cancer for which “there is a cause,” referring to smoking. Brawley asserts this despite the fact that non-smokers comprise about 15% of all lung cancer patients. Their remarks are made all the more confusing when they themselves report that if non-smokers with lung cancer had their own type distinction, this group would still be among America’s top ten fatal cancers. Yet, ACS continues to use its status as the most visible cancer nonprofit organization to spread falsehoods, which lead to the stigmatization of all lung cancer patients who are seen as deserving their disease. In 2011, the National Lung Screening Trial showed that tens of thousands of former smokers, who comprise about 50% of lung cancer diagnoses, could be cured with preventative screening. ACS continues to be silent about this.
ACS’ focus on treatment is also detrimental in that it is entirely centered on cancer in adults. In 2010, the ACS reported that only 1% of their expenses are allocated to childhood cancer (that is, each and every form of cancer which might occur in a child). This is a problem because adult cancers do not evenly map onto their childhood correlates; many adult cancers do not exist in children. The standard treatment for childhood cancer is to use lower doses of adult treatments; this is not always effective, and survivors of childhood cancer face an increased risk of premature death. Cancer simply affects children differently than adults and has long-term effects not present in adult forms. Research is desperately needed here, and to neglect this concern under the faulty rationale that adult-centric research encompasses childhood cancer is simply to be in denial of scientific reality. ACS is happy to use the images and stories of children with cancer while championing itself as the “Official Sponsor of Birthdays,” despite allocating almost nothing on this front. If donors wanted to, they could not request that their donations go towards childhood cancer research either. This highlights a serious problem with how ACS treats cancer: all funds go into one large pot rather than being focused towards any one of the over 200 cancers we know about. But cancer is not a monolith.
ACS and Relay for Life’s choice of language is also damaging. Sexual wordplay almost always accompanies cancer awareness campaigns. If you want to show you support curing breast cancer, you have your choice of “I <3 Boobies,” “Save The Ta-Tas,” and even “Save Second Base” wristbands. At best, the slogans sound like they were drafted by a third-grader clumsily expecting a laugh for mentioning something dirty; at worst, the slogans are severely disconnected with those whom breast cancer actually affects. It’s not clear why we’d want to sexualize a cancer whose median age of diagnosis is around 61. Though ACS is not responsible for these thoughtless slogans, they aren’t immune to the tendency to sexualize cancer. At Tufts, past Relay slogans include: “We go all night so you don’t have to beat it alone” and “Are you DTF [Down To Fight]?” where DTF commonly stands for “Down To Fuck.” While this sexual branding might elicit a minor giggle from a sexually awkward freshman, it just insults those of us who have lived through super-sexy cancer.
The nonsexual language we use to describe cancer and its victims also carries significant consequences. When we talk about “beating” and “fighting” cancer, we are ascribing a level of control to cancer patients that simply isn’t there. In 1978, Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor that while we portray cancer as an evil to be fought,
…it is also the cancer patient who is made culpable. Widely believed psychological theories of disease assign to the luckless ill the ultimate responsibility both for falling ill and for getting well. And conventions of treating cancer as no mere disease but a demonic enemy make cancer not just a lethal disease but a shameful one.
Given ACS’ failure to adhere to even minimal principles for philanthropic outreach, it is distressing that so many of my peers believe they are doing good by participating in Relay. If you’re looking to effectively aid cancer patients and survivors, The Jimmy Fund and the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge are just a few local philanthropic activities with a history of transparency and tact. We don’t need to settle for Relay for Life.