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August 24, 2016
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Red, Pink, Blue... Think?

Today, the first Friday of February, is national "Wear Red" day in honor (or observance) of Women's Heart Health Awareness, as spearheaded by the "Go Red for Women" campaign. So of course I will be wearing red to work and I've been handing out Red Dress pins.


While most of my health advocacy has been tied to diabetes, heart health looms large in my family's medical history. My maternal grandfather had a massive heart attack in his late 50s which he survived, against all odds. My paternal grandmother's mother (one of the two great-grandmothers from whom my Jewish name comes) died from a series of three heart attacks. Our first indication of my maternal grandmother's rapidly-waning health was a seemingly-mild heart attack (which resulted in triple-bypass surgery, the discovery of an aortic aneurysm, and deteriorated lung function), and my mom's death was apparently due to the failure of the pacemaker which was implanted subsequent to heart valve replacement surgery. And that's just among those genetically closest to me.


When I first became aware of the Red Dress campaign, it was in its early years and few people knew of either the symbol or the fashion show. My first Red Dress pin came from a Celestial Seasonings promotion; they were one of the few places where such a pin could be found. Early Red Dress pins were relatively three-dimensional and had a stylized white or metal-tone heart over the left breast. (This style of pin, based on a sleeveless dress, is still available as a single pin from the US National Institutes of Health's National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.) In 2007, I was able to purchase a pack of 25 pins to hand out, along with awareness. This year, it was harder to find the pins I had to go through the American Heart Association, and while the pins were about half the price of their 2007 cost, they were flat, stylized short-sleeved dresses without the stylized heart. This like the pink ribbon with the dot on top has become associated with a particular organization and a particular campaign.


One of my frequent comments about our blue circle World Diabetes Day logo is that for diabetes research to be funded and taken seriously, that logo needs to be as readily recognizable as the pink ribbon or, arguably now, the red dress. Meanwhile, within the breast cancer community, there has been a lot of criticism concerning "pinkwashing" the use of pink and pink ribbons to put a "pretty" picture over physically-disfiguring breast cancer, to raise funds for the purpose of funding "awareness" organizations rather than towards legitimate research and towards providing treatment to the less fiscally fortunate, and even to suppress research and development towards better breast-cancer treatments, or even prevention and cures. A new movie, Pink Ribbons, Inc., is premiering in Canada this weekend. The trailer is, if nothing else, a frightening view from the other side of the pinkwashed fence. That this is film is coming out at the same time as some very damaging information concerning the activities of the Susan G. Komen Foundation (arguably one of the largest, and surely one of the best-known, Breast Cancer Awareness organizations) is making me think twice about that position.


It's also making me think twice about my Red Dress.


If the only way I was able to purchase Red Dress pins in bulk was through a major awareness organization and both the order form and the card with the pin are begging for donations I have to wonder whether the pins are being sold at cost (probably not, based on the quantities they are likely ordering at the time), what sort of research and outreach is being funded, and how much of those donations is going to bona fide research, outreach, treatment, and programs, as opposed to lobbyists' salaries and organization infrastructure. It's the same question many of us in the diabetes community have regarding the American Diabetes Association and the JDRF. On the other hand, how many of us are truly informed enough on a biomedical level to be able to judge whether Dr. Faustman's approach is the real deal, or just another cold fusion red herring?

That said, the reason I support the ADA is because I see the abstracts presented at the Scientific Sessions and I see the outreach programs it's developed for the African-American community and the Latino community, both of which include large low-income populations, and both of which populations are in my immediate neighborhood. ADA programs are programs I can see, I can understand, and which are tailored to people all around me. As a Libertarian, I don't agree with the political lobbying, but I do agree with the idea of groups and charities helping affected individuals.

Still, the whole Komen expos has given me pause enough to ask what ugly scars that Red Dress is hiding.

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