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Think Before You Pink: The True Story About The Origin Of The Iconic Breast Cancer Symbol

By On October 3, 2017

The iconic symbol for breast cancer is everywhere you look. The Pink Ribbon can be found on everything from t-shirts and hats to cancer-causing products like fried chicken and cosmetics, which are loaded with carcinogens that are banned in the European Union.

The idea of using a ribbon as a symbol first appeared in 1979, when Penney Laingen tied yellow ribbons as a message of hope in seeing her husband again, who had been taken hostage in Iran.

Then in 1990, AIDS activists colored the ribbon red for those dying from the disease. At the same time the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation was seen giving out pink visors, not ribbons, to breast cancer survivors during their annual Race for the Cure. It took a few small occurrences to give birth to the pink ribbon and make it the symbol of breast cancer awareness.

Charlotte Haley’s Message About Money For Prevention

In 1992, news sources discovered a woman named Charlotte Haley who crafted peach-colored ribbons to raise awareness that not enough money was being spent on cancer prevention research.

Each ribbon was attached to a card that read:

“The National Cancer Institute’s annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5% goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.” (In 2013 cancer prevention and control received 6.2% of the NIC’s budget).

Haley gave out the cards at local supermarkets and ultimately handed out thousands of them during her advocacy years. It was a true grassroots movement that asked for no money, only awareness. But in 1992 the editor of the magazine Self and cosmetic companies turned the symbol into what is it today – a money-driven, popularity-seeking, marketing campaign.

The Color Pink Was Chosen

In 1992, ribbons of every color started spreading everywhere, and The New York Times even named it “The Year of the Ribbon”. Suddenly every organization felt like they needed a ribbon to symbolize their message to the world.

That same year the editor-in-chief of Self was designing a magazine cover for the Breast Cancer Awareness Month issue, when she happened upon Haley’s story and decided that she wanted to add the ribbon to the cover. Self magazine contacted Haley and promised international attention if she allowed the magazine to use her ribbon. To their surprise, Haley declined saying the magazine was “too commercial.” The magazine’s lawyers then told the editor they could still use the ribbon legally, as long as the color was changed.

The magazine chose pink.

After the Self breast-cancer edition of 1992 came out, Evelyn Lauder, Estée Lauder senior corporate vice president, promised to put pink ribbons on every cosmetic counter across the country, and soon the pink ribbon symbol was seen everywhere.

Sadly, Haley’s peach ribbon and her important mission were immediately forgotten.

“There is a value to awareness, but awareness of what, and to what end? We need changes in the direction the research is going, we need access to care—beyond mammograms—we need to know what is causing the disease, and we need a cure. The pink ribbon is not indicative of any of that.” -Barbara Brenner, then Executive Director of Breast Cancer Action

Perhaps in the very beginning, the pink ribbon had good intentions. It was about still feeling beautiful and feminine after a devastating illness and having hope that a “cure” will one day be discovered.

However, it has become what many now recognize as nothing more than a greed-driven marketing campaign that, in many cases, does more to cause breast cancer then it does to prevent it.