Breast cancer ISN’T pink..and other stories

When I first pinned a pink ribbon on myself, it was October 2004 and I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt that pinning on the pink ribbon was a symbol of solidarity with all the other women with breast cancer, and I wore it proudly. Six years later, the pink ribbon has come to represent something quite different in my mind.

Let me start with the most recent post I have read on the pinkification of breast cancer from Jody Schoger’ s Women with Cancer blog. Jody sets out her view from the first line of her excellent post with her clear statement: “There’s nothing pink about cancer”. I know what she means!

“When I think pink for cancer awareness what comes to mind is My Little Pony or the color of bedrooms where little girls dream sweet dreams”, write Jody.

The reality is very different.

Cancer appears in sentences with words like lymphatic, salvage therapy or necrotic. I’ve seen necrotic tissue once. Once was enough.  It wasn’t pink.

Anna Wallace also brought up another great point when she left a comment on yesterday’s Origins of the Pink Ribbon post:

I’ve always thought that it’s a shame that it’s such a feminine colour as this pushes further against men being able to say they also have breast cancer.

Alicia Staley was  moved to write Thinking pink and seeing red and Tara Parker Pope writing in her health blog for the New York Times explores the issues further in a post entitled Pink Ribbon Fatigue.

Pam Stephan touches on the same subject this month in her breast cancer blog with the interesting story of Gayle A. Sulik, a medical sociologist, who did eight years of research analyzing advertisements, breast cancer awareness campaigns, and interviews with survivors.  She wanted to see if the “branding of breast cancer” with the pink ribbon and the resulting pink culture had many any difference.  Had it brought us any better results – a reduction in cases of breast cancer, a better survival rate, more effective treatments, research that discovered the cause or the cure?  Sulik put her conclusions together in a book, “Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health.

Last year, I too wrote a post on the subject of pink-washing, as I was becoming increasingly more uncomfortable with the commercialisation of the pink ribbon movement.  Think Before You Pink, a project of Breast Cancer Action was launched in 2002 in response to the growing concern about the overwhelming number of pink ribbon products and promotions on the market. Think Before You Pink highlights “pinkwashers”—companies that purport to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon campaign, but manufacture products that are linked to the disease. The campaign calls 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.

Now, none of this is meant in any way as a criticism of those who are wearing pink ribbons; part of me still sees it as a symbol of solidarity and I grateful that the movement has brought breast cancer out of the dark ages when it was taboo to even mention the words “breast cancer” aloud. Awareness and support are good things and I am not advocating that we abandon it entirely.  It is just I’ve now come to believe, in the words of Paula who left a comment on yesterday’s post that “While the pink ribbon has done a monumental amount to raise awareness of breast cancer, it’s just such a shame that it is so often used and abused for commercial gain, undermining the work of genuine efforts.”

I am with Gayle Sulik when she writes “this is not a condemnation of anyone who finds meaning in the ribbon or public events. It is a call to broaden the discussion, re-orient the cause toward prevention and life-saving research, and acknowledge the unintended consequences of commercialization, festive awareness activities, and the lack of evidence-based information that makes its way to the public.”

Perhaps the best way to finish this post is by sharing with you Luann’s observation:

Guess it is like Hallmark commercializing Christmas and other holidays just to make a buck. We need to look underneath the layers to get the true meaning.

Related: What No One Tells You About Breast Cancer