Unraveling the Ribbon: Breast Cancer Awareness Month isn't just about pink.

It’s breast cancer awareness month again: Rite-Aid is selling pink TicTacs, rosé is on sale at Whole Foods, and Sephora is hawking a “Breast Cancer Awareness Makeup Palette.”

pink tic tacsIf you’re suffering from awareness overload, you’re not alone. 

When it comes to breast cancer, we’re inundated with what health studies professor Samantha King calls a “tyranny of cheerfulness.” Rather than addressing the more complex issues of inadequate health insurance, environmental pollution, and stalled research, the public face of breast cancer advocacy veers toward to what Barbara Ehrenreich calls “the breast cancer cult,” an ultra-feminine, consumer-driven approach drenched in sentimentality and good cheer.

The ubiquitous pink ribbon often overshadows the actual achievements of breast cancer organizations.

Far from being pawns of a corporate fundraising campaign requiring them to share the color of their bra or accumulate a house-full of pink tchotchkes, many breast cancer activists are politically savvy women who have helped change the way medical research is funded, agitated for tighter environmental restrictions, and made significant improvements to the US healthcare delivery system.

“When you mention breast cancer, people think of Race for the Cure and support groups,” says Sue Wittewer, an active member of Iowa Breast Cancer Edu-Action. “When I tell people that I’m learning to lobby for better healthcare coverage, they’re surprised. You have to explain it to them, since they don’t know anything about it.”

Angela Wall, the communications manager at Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy organization based in San Francisco, agrees. “You can’t get the real issues out there for all the pink noise,” she says. “Juggernaut pink organizations like Komen and Avon have the pink mouthpiece and and that makes it hard to get a word in edgewise to talk about the real issues that will actually address and end this epidemic.”

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month was started in 1985, the brainchild of the American Cancer Society and AstraZeneca, a multi-national pharmaceutical companyas an initiative to promote mammograms. But the first woman to come up with a ribbon for breast cancer awareness was 68-year-old Charlotte Haley, who made peach ribbons in her living room. She distributed them with a card that read: “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.”

In 1992, Self magazine and cosmetics giant Estee Lauder had the idea to create a breast cancer awareness ribbon. Haley wanted nothing to do with this campaign, seeing it as too commercial. Estee Lauder chose to pursue the ribbon idea anyway, and decided to use a different color.

They chose pink.

At the time, this was almost revolutionary: research about the disease was underfunded, and women were often ashamed of having had mastectomies. Tens of thousands of women died of breast cancer every year, but nobody talked about it in public.

Eventually, other companies jumped on board and soon the pink ribbon was plastered on everything from cologne to corn chips.
komen perfume bottlelays chips with pink ribbons
This Komen Foundation Perfume was discontinued because it contained a chemical classified as toxic. You can still buy the chips though.

At the same time corporations were discovering they could improve their image with women by slapping a pink ribbon on their merchandise, thousands of breast cancer survivors were coming together to create political change.

The National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC) lobbied to increase federal funding for breast cancer research which resulted, improbably, in the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program. The program, administered by the Department of the Army, funds innovative research proposals which consumer advocates help select. “It was important to us that women have a seat at the table,” says Visco. “It wasn’t enough to just be raising the money.”

To make sure that advocates were prepared, the NBCC started an intensive science immersion course for survivors called Project LEAD. Since its inauguration, over 2,000 women have been trained in the program. “The project really stands out as a model for developing activists who ask relevant and important questions, and acknowledge their power when working with the scientific community,” says Dr. Kay Dickersin, a longtime faculty member with Project LEAD.

Healthcare coverage is another major issue for women with breast cancer, which is rarely addressed by the pink ribbon contingent.

Until 2000, free breast cancer screening was available for uninsured women, but treatment was often out of reach. Activists affiliated with the NBCC lobbied to make treatment more accessible, resulting in the The Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Act. The legislation gave states the option to offer Medicaid assistance to women who were screened through the program.

While it’s all good and well to fund research for a cure and help women with cancer get treated, even better would be to stop the disease before it starts. “We need to reduce the number of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, not celebrate the number who are getting mammograms,” says Wall.

To that end, BCA has lobbied Eli Lilly to stop producing rBGH, the growth hormone that is present in dairy products and which may increase the risk of breast cancer. The organization was successful in its campaign to have methyl iodide, the pesticide that scientists called “one of the most toxic chemicals on earth,” pulled from the U.S. market by its manufacturer, Arysta LifeScience Corporation. And they’ve been a party in a lawsuit against Myriad Genetics that challenges the company’s patents on breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, patents that were ruled invalid in 2010.

You don’t hear about these things in the mainstream media, but surely they are just as important as a pink-handled gun or rose-colored football jerseys?

Every year, Christine Norton helps organize the Race for the Cure in her hometown of Minneapolis. She wears a pink ribbon, but she’s also a longtime board member of the NBCC and she’s acutely aware of the problems with the symbol. “Pink ribbons can be counterproductive to the larger issue,” she says. “Some people think it’s enough to just put the pink ribbon on, but really, at this point in time, that’s doing jack squat.”

Angela Wall believes that more and more women are coming to the same conclusion. “Women are not stupid. We’re incredibly savvy. Our bullshit detectors ring loud and clear. We know when something isn’t working.”

Jill Moffett, PhD, MPH is a freelance writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She blogs at Women’s Wellness Watch.

Images: Tic Tacs, Nordstrom, Frito Lay

by Jill Moffett
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28 Comments Have Been Posted

great article. Pink Ribbon

great article. Pink Ribbon Inc is a must see

Hi Dee, Thanks for the

Hi Dee,
Thanks for the recommendation. I've read about the documentary (created by my beloved National Film Board of Canada!) but haven't had the chance to see it yet. Soon I hope!



Yes, the case of the perfume

Yes, the case of the perfume is particularly interesting! It just goes to show what's on Komen's radar and what's not!

Cancer is NOT Pink

Thanks for this writing article. I am one of the women whose "bullshit detectors" is sounding off loud and clear this month. I am all for breast cancer research to find better treatments and cures, but the pink boas, and tic tacs, and football cleats... we see right through that.

That's why I'm so excited to support The Gateway for Cancer Research's "Cancer is NOT Pink" campaign. Here are a few more details in case you are interested: http://owl.li/efWOD

Pornhub has recently jumped

Pornhub has recently jumped on the pink ribbon bandwagon. Their newest "thing" is that for every 30 views of a "big boob" or "small boob" clip watched, they will donate $0.01 to a breast cancer organization. You know, cause porn and breast obsession is exactly what people struggling with cancer need.

Wh-what? Awful. Even I am

Wh-what? Awful. Even I am shocked.

I remember a commercial that

I remember a commercial that pictured a very young attractive girl focused on her boobs and the message was basically, "oh noes! If she gets breast cancer you won't be able to feel her boobs!" Because you know, the worst part of breast cancer is that men won't be able to feel them up! Not you know, the suffering and death of the woman.

Oh, they've got

Oh, they've got jokes....boobies are funny! Can you imagine a similar ad for prostate cancer?

Prostate cancer is the 3rd

Prostate cancer is the 3rd biggest type of cancer in men. Just as breast cancer is the 3rd biggest killer of women. I personally would love to see even half the amount of awareness given to breast cancer given to prostate cancer.

Not forgetting, of course, that men suffer from breast cancer too.

A New Kind of Campaign

I recently came across a new awareness campaign for breast cancer that I found incredibly refreshing. It is targeted more at young women. It is called The Scar Project. It features survivors through photograpy. Their tag line is "Breast Cancer Is Not A Pink Ribbon."

You can check it out here: http://www.thescarproject.org/ Be warned though that the images can be triggering, especially if breast cancer is apart of your life, or someone you love.

Link for BCA

Great article- the hyperlink to Breast Cancer Action is wrong, though. Should be bcaction.org.

Pink has always been my

Pink has always been my favorite color. 3 years ago when I was told that I had Breast Cancer,my world changed...but not my love for pink. It is now my favorite color for a different reason. When I see a pink ribbon on someones jewelry or clothing, I know that that person ,or someone in their life, is either battling, surviving or resting in peace because of this disease. When I see the pink ribbon on merchandise in stores, I PERSONALLY don't see it as a money making scheme. Again it serves me as a reminder of all women(and men) who have been diagnosed or will be be told those three awful words, YOU HAVE CANCER. If I want, need or like the item ...I buy it. I do beleive that some things need not be pinked. One of the things that upsets people the most about pink ribboned items is that not much of the money goes for research like the companies proclaim. But my way of looking on that is ...Any amount of money towards researching a cure for this disease is better than nothing

The Tuohy Breast Cancer Vaccine (aka, the "Pink Vaccine")

Thank you for the well written article. As a citizen, I walked and ran and bought pink labeled consumer items to raise money for Susan G. Komen for the Cure (Komen). I raised $2,300 as my entry fee to walk in the Seattle 3-Day. The Seattle take in 2009 was ~ $4.5 million and there were ~ 15 3-Day events across the country that year. However, as a cancer survivor, I was excited to learn that Dr. Vincent Tuohy, Immunologist at the Cleveland Clinic, has discovered a breast cancer vaccine that is 100% effective in preventing breast cancer in mice. He needs $6 million for clinical trials. However, he has been rejected by Komen at least 3 times. There's no profit in prevention, I guess. We don't need more awareness for detection and treatment. WE NEED A CURE! Since 2010, I've been directing my energies to helping Dr. Tuohy raise funds for the "Pink Vaccine". Learn more at: http://my.clevelandclinic.org/giving/where-to-give/tuohy_vaccine.aspx. Write, or better yet, call Dr. Tuohy for an interview. Prevention is the cure.

Komen Foundation perfume

I'm not totally sure, but I believe the Komen Foundation perfume might still be available - I found a few websites selling it when I was researching my article this week: http://marnieclark.com/a-rant-on-pinktober-and-pinkwashing/

Other than that - great article. Appreciated the research you did and the points you made. My absolute favorite part of your article? The part where you say “Women are not stupid. We’re incredibly savvy. Our bullshit detectors ring loud and clear. We know when something isn’t working.” Well said, totally agree!

Keep up the good work - it's up to us to make the change we need to see in breast cancer numbers.

Marnie Clark

Unraveling the Ribbon: Breast Cancer Awareness Month isn't just

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Kind regards

Well said

It is easy to not give breast cancer some serious thought until you have a family member who dies as a result of it. It's not just about pink... there is so much more to it!

This is a great article.

This is a great article. National Breast Cancer Awareness Month has become very big and very pink. Unfortunately, I think the whole pink idea has turned into a fashion statement during that month so I hope people do not forgot what it really represents. I always promote <a href="http://www.pinmart.com/cancer-awareness.aspx">cancerawarenessribbons</a> and will have one on my shirt every day during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Great article and products to

Great article and products to support the cause! I ordered my <a href="http://www.swagrobot.com">breast cancer awareness pins from here</a>. But I'm definitely going to check out some of these other items too. Thanks for the great article.

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