There was a moment last week when I contemplated going to Relay for Life. I thought about heading over to the Scot Center, getting a survivor’s shirt (lymphoma, summer of 2011) and running 104 laps, one for every day I experienced treatment. I considered writing the names of family and friends and peers who were sufferers and survivors alike on my sleeves and having them run with me, at least in spirit. It was a nice, uplifting image — the triumphant survivor. But I withheld, because nothing would be accomplished and I’d only participate in a system I’ve come to loathe.
Relay for Life is run by the American Cancer Society, an organization that pledges to eradicate cancer and advertises itself as “the official sponsor of birthdays.” These are messages everyone can get behind, but they oversimplify the point. Cancer, for as much as our culture views it as single entity, is a broad category of diseases. They all involve unregulated cell growth, but for some subtypes, the similarities stop there. Eradicating it completely is nigh impossible and misguided, but pledging to better understand and take steps to prevent cancer doesn’t look as flashy to donors.
What the ACS does with the money given to it by donors is part of my problem with Relay for Life. For all of the talk about eradicating the disease, the primary chunk of its charitable spending is for patient support. A recent tax document showed that 37 percent of expenses go to patient support, 25 percent to prevention, 21 percent to detection and treatment, and 17 percent to research. The ACS defines prevention in their 990 as “programs that provide the public and health professionals with information and education to prevent cancer occurrences or to reduce the risk of developing cancer.” I’m weary of organizations that spend money on “awareness raising” activities because they ultimately make little difference in the world. Cancer isn’t a disease that has a low profile. It causes roughly 13 percent of all human deaths a year. Awareness isn’t what needs help; treatment, research and assisting patients in affording care are what need it.
Even when the ACS does throw money to research, it isn’t anything new or innovative, but rather it tends to go to the major pharmaceuticals for researching new or current chemo drugs. Having been through chemo, I’d love if they took some time to fund treatments that ensure no one would ever have to go through that process again. Even if they don’t all work or only work for one type of cancer, it’s worth it just to find one that prevents someone going through that process.
Of course, the problems with Relay and the ACS don’t stop at just the financial aspects. They also represent a systematic cultural problem: the over-commercialization of the cancer culture. Relay for Life, the ACS, Stand Up to Cancer, etc, they’re all brands. Ribbons have become ubiquitous, pink dominates the month of October and wristbands with clever slogans like “save the boobies” are commonplace (never mind the fact that the last example also serves to objectify women’s bodies while pledging to help them). But often times, the money spent on these items does little to actually make a difference. For example, the NFL’s breast cancer awareness proceeds go back to the program itself. Charity instead becomes a money raising tool, and the money keeps the existing system going instead of making a tangible difference. A purple shirt that condemns cancer doesn’t mean much of anything, and wearing one outside the Scot Center while smoking flies in the face of everything the event claims to represent.
Relay also has the bizarre effect of creating competition within the charitable community. The event in part helps to drive it, fostering off the idea of a team raising more money than others. When I last participated in Relay, I encountered a team who aimed to raise the most money, not because they wanted to truly make a difference, but rather because they wanted to win. It became a competition to do the most, and the experiences with that group left a bitter taste in my mouth. In some cases, a community even makes attendance or participation mandatory, which detracts from the charitable intentions. Those that go walk a few laps and feel that it means they’ve done something to stand up and fight back against cancer when all they’ve actually done is meander vaguely around a track.
To me, events like Relay exploit cancer victims. Survivors and sufferers alike are paraded out with great show. Their bald, smiling faces are plastered on posters that promise to fight back, but the system only uses them for profit. Hearts may be true and intentions may be good, but little difference is made. To truly help, we can’t simply feel that we’re doing something by walking, standing arm in arm while we condemn the diseases. Until a better system is in place, I’ll continue to refuse to participate.