I originally wrote this two years ago on September 30, 2017.
Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I did not give much thought to the pink ribbon or Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Breast cancer terrified me, as I think it does most women, but having a month dedicated to “raising awareness” of cancer seemed unnecessary. I was well aware of breast cancer and had been for as long as I could remember.
That all changed when I was diagnosed in February of 2012. I saw pink ribbons everywhere year round but especially during October. The first October after I was diagnosed – on the first day of that month in fact – I was in the hospital facing a double mastectomy. As I healed from that surgery, tried to recover from chemotherapy, faced radiation and further surgeries, I was not interested in becoming involved in any way in pink marches, buying pink products or playing silly Facebook games to “promote awareness’” Nor was I interested in “giving money for breast cancer” and told well-meaning cashiers on more than one occasion that I had “given plenty to cancer already.”
Despite my lack of interest in being involved with any pink organizations, I did find a group of ladies on a website called breastcancer.org that bonded during treatment; we later moved the group to Facebook. Some were quite involved and supportive of the pink ribbon campaigns, and others were vehemently against them. As with many controversial topics, I felt as if I need to “take a side” – I was either ‘fer it or ‘agin it. So I learned as much as I could on the topic.
The concept of issue related ribbons is nothing new but many sources point to yellow ribbons in the late 1970s tied around trees during the Iran hostage crisis as one of the first times they were used to raise public awareness; smaller yellow ribbons were then used as a symbol for troop remembrance during the first Gulf War. Red ribbons cropped up in the early 1990’s to bring attention to the AIDS epidemic. Many other organizations that worked for advocacy soon followed suit, matching different color ribbons to different causes. However, the original “pink ribbon” for breast cancer awareness was not pink, it was peach. A woman named Charlotte Haley who was affected by the disease both personally and within her family made peach ribbons and cards in her living room that she handed out to local women to try to bring attention to the lack of funding for cancer prevention by the National Cancer Institute. Along with the awareness that she raised, she also presented a call to action for people to contact their representatives to address the issue. Self Magazine approached Haley to use the idea and the ribbon but she refused to “sell out” to them. Thus, the ribbon changed from peach to pink.
The pink ribbon came to the forefront in the early 1990s. The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation gave out pink ribbons to participants in its New York City race in 1991. Estee Launder Cosmetics handed out ribbons in 1992 at its cosmetic counters, as well as gathered signatures for a petition for the government to further breast cancer research. Avon got on board the next year, selling a pink ribbon pin to raise money, followed by a response from Estee lauder marketing a pink enamel compact. Then Susan G. Komen came back with a brooch, and on and on and on. By 1996, breast cancer was a hot commodity.
Fast forward 20 years. Cause marketing is more popular than ever. Americans love to shop – both for the necessary and the totally frivolous. What better way to soothe the conscience than to convince yourself you are shopping for a good cause? However, not all pink ribbons are created equal. Some companies slap a pink ribbon on a product and say it is for “awareness” and not a penny goes toward any kind of organization. Others seem to have good intentions but have a cap on the charitable donations that a charity may receive. In other words, it doesn’t matter how many of an item they sell, they will not donate over X amount of dollars. Perhaps most nefarious are corporations are guilty of true “pink washing” that profit from sales of products which could actually be linked to breast or other cancers.
There are several charities which affiliate themselves with the pink ribbon that do not market items but focus on events to garner donations for their cause. Although awareness and detection are paramount in the fight against cancer, I would argue that awareness is at an all-time high. The stigma that was associated with cancer until the campaigns of the 1990s has subsided a great deal. But now the pendulum seems to have swung the other direction…there is much more emphasis on awareness than there is on research.
According to a 2011 article in Marie Claire magazine, in 1991, when the push began for awareness and funding, 119 women died per day as a result of metastatic disease from breast cancer. In 2011, that number was 110. Well over 40,000 people die in the United States every year from metastatic breast cancer. Although research has provided a bevy of pharmaceuticals which do improve the lives of those with cancers, one of which – Herceptin – can literally be a life saver for those of us with hormone positive cancers, a cure remains elusive.
Without question, the most famous “pink charity” is Susan G. Komen. Taking the issues of CEO salaries and operation costs out of the picture, there is always the question of what a charity does with its money. Particularly with Komen since their catchphrase is “for the cure” – very little of their money actually goes into researching a cure. 75% of money Komen raises stays local – which is wonderful for the people who are able to utilize the programs they are able to fund. It goes toward “awareness, education, and support.” That is vital, especially in communities that are underserved by the medical community at large. The remaining 25% goes to the national headquarters where 18% goes into cancer research and only 15% goes into research for metastatic breast cancer – the only breast cancer that will actually kill a woman (or man). So if you donate to Komen, you should be aware that although the money you donate is going to a good cause, much of it is to awareness and education, rather than the research which is desperately needed to save lives.
The entire point of the pink ribbon campaign when it began back in the 1990s was to raise awareness. We should be aware. We should be aware of all cancers, of autoimmune diseases, of neurological disorders, of mental illnesses. Awareness is vital. Awareness is good. But no amount of awareness of any issue will lead to a cure. That is why research is so important.
Perhaps the most offensive exploitation of breast cancer during the pink month is the sexualization of breasts and breast cancer. Phrases such as “save the tatas” or “save second base” imply first and foremost that the breasts are the most important part of a woman’s body and everyone should be working towards saving women’s boobs. But secondly, and more importantly, they imply that if you save your breasts, you save your life. Cancer in your breasts is never fatal. It is when the cancer metastasizes – to one’s bones, liver, lungs, brain, and other organs – that it kills. Breasts are either treated by lumpectomy and radiation and all traces of cancer are removed or – in the case of women such as myself who chose mastectomy – they are surgically removed. You do not have to have breasts to have metastatic breast cancer! Even in cases where messages are not overtly sexual, the “cute” or “clever” messages associated with this cancer make a mockery out of what is at minimum a devastating life changing disease and at worse, a death sentence.
So where does that leave us? Am I suggesting you boycott all pink products? Not participate in the Race for the Cure? Not necessarily. If you really enjoy the color pink, buy a product because you want it. Run the race for the cure if you are involved with that organization. Many people feel that wearing pink or participating in awareness programs memorializes or honor those with breast cancer. If that is the case with you, then go for it! I count among my friends many people who are involved with Komen and similar organizations. Just be aware where your hard earned dollars are going. And if you are truly concerned about the cure of the cancer that KILLS 40,000 people in this country a year, in addition to everything else you might do during “Pink-tober”, donate directly to a worthy research organization. My friend Vickie Young Wen, about whom I will write more extensively later this month, compiled this list some time ago so that people would know where their dollars would do the most good.
As for me, I do not embrace the pink movement. I have known too many people who have died at the result of this awful disease and the whole movement strikes me as overly saccharine and trite. I won’t be sporting any pink ribbons, tote bags or t-shirts. I often check products in store to see if they are reporting what percentage of the money they raise is going to research. Research is what will eventually lead to a cure of this disease which affects 1 in 8 women’s lives. A disease which has taken the lives of several of my friends. A disease which, God forbid, may affect my daughters or nieces one day. So “don’t pink for me”. And in the words of Vickie Young Wen, “I want more than a pink ribbon.”
-Karri Temple Brackett