Each October, from the 1st the the 31st, from the White House to the shoes at NFL games, we see pink to promote awareness of breast cancer, the 2nd leading cause of death for women in the United States. But how did it all start?
The month was founded in October 1985 by the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries (now part of AstraZeneca, producer of several anti-breast cancer drugs) established the month to to increase awareness of the disease and raise funds for research into the causes, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure. The early mission of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) was to educate and empower women to “take charge of their breast health.”
But how did Breast Cancer Awareness come to be associated with the now ubiquitous pink? It was a combination of grassroots and smart marketing.
The original symbol of breast cancer awareness actually wasn’t pink at all. It was peach. In 1991, the ribbon idea came from Charlotte Haley, a California woman who had been impacted by breast cancer: her grandmother died from the disease at 45 years old and her sister and daughter were both survivors. The idea for the ribbons was inspired in part by the success of the red AIDS campaign (in itself inspired by the yellow ribbons commemorating soldiers fighting overseas).
To Haley, breast cancer had been minimized and dismissed as a woman’s disease, and was sorely in need of attention and funding. In an effort to increase awareness of breast cancer, Haley began handing out peach ribbons to local social groups. Once the idea got some traction, she moved on to handing out the ribbons, attached to cards that read: “The National Cancer Institute’s annual budget is 1.8 billion US dollars, and only 5 percent goes to cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.” at grocery stars, eventually working her way up to sending the cards to the wives of Presidents’ Bush, Reagan, Carter and Ford. As the story goes, the first ladies didn’t respond, but Abigail Van Buren (of Dear Abby fame) did reply that she would be proud to wear the ribbon.
There must have been something in the air when it came to ribbons. They quickly became a universal symbol for a variety of causes, most notably a symbol of the AIDS crisis, prompting the The New York Times to call 1992 “The year of the ribbon.”
Alexandra Penney, editor in chief of Self, was laying out the magazine’s second annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month issue. The previous year’s effort, guest edited by Evelyn Lauder—Estée Lauder senior corporate vice president, breast cancer survivor and founder of The Breast Cancer Research Foundation–had been a great success. The team was eager to exceed the previous years success, and were in need of an idea. The idea, a ribbon, would be remarkably simple in theory if not in execution.
“You know how it is when things are in the air,” Penney said of the inspirational moment.
When nationally syndicated columnist Liz Smith wrote about a woman doing a peach-colored ribbon for breast cancer, along with Haley’s number, Self reached out.
“We said, ‘We want to go in with you on this, we’ll give you national attention, there’s nothing in it for us,” Penney says. “She wanted nothing to do with us. Said we were too commercial.”
In a follow-up story Liz Smith reported that Estee Lauder had experienced issues working with Haley, who claimed that Self had asked her to give up the ribbon. “We didn’t want to crowd her,” Penney says. “But we really wanted to do a ribbon. We asked our lawyers and they said, ‘ Come up with another color.”
They chose pink. And the rest, as they say, is history.
In the years since, the pink ribbon has given way to participation in more and more creative ways, from waterways dyed pink, to a pink ribbon highway.
As with anything, not everyone is a fan of the pink campaign (“pinkwashing”, as some critics refer to it.) In 2002, Breast Cancer Action launched the Think Before You Pink campaign in response “to the growing concern about the number of pink ribbon products on the market, calling for more transparency and accountability by companies that take part in breast cancer fundraising, and encourages consumers to ask critical questions about pink ribbon promotions.” The National Breast Cancer Coalition launched a campaign called Breast Cancer Deadline 2020. According to an article in the New York Times from that year, the campaign focuses on “action, not awareness” and calls for channeling the billions of dollars typically spent on awareness campaigns towards research, instead.
Even if pink isn’t your color, due to hue preference or because of concerns about the commercialization of the movement, Breast Cancer Awareness Month can still be a valuable time for you. Whether it’s educating yourself about breast cancer, or volunteering with a local group that provides rides or meals to patients in need of support, or committing yourself to healthy habits that can reduce your risk of cancer, there is value in knowledge and until we have a cure, early prevention is essential to saving lives from breast cancer.