Cancer is Not Pink

In case you haven’t noticed (and it is hard not to), October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM). Founded in 1985 as a partnership between the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries (now part of AstraZeneca), NBCAM was created to promote the prevention and early detection (particularly mammograms) of breast cancer for women who might not otherwise get screened. In the early 1990s, both The Breast Cancer Research Foundation and the Susan G. Komen Foundation adopted the pink ribbon to symbolize breast cancer awareness. In the 27 years since its inception, NBCAM has grown exponentially, particularly in the consumer marketplace.

Pink Ribbons & Beyond

There are pink ribbons on yogurt containers, cosmetics, cleaning products, and soda cans. Entire products turn pink for the month of October—including certain brands of pancake mixes, ice creams, and—yes, even cat litter. The National Football League—a bastion of all things masculine—requires its players to wear something pink on their uniforms during every game played in the month of October. For women with breast cancer, it would seem that the cultural explosion of NBCAM would be only good news. After all, a percentage of the profits from these products purportedly go toward “finding a cure.” The proponents of NBCAM maintain that the more aware the country is of breast cancer, the more effort will be put into preventing and curing the disease. But among some women affected by breast cancer, a genuine backlash is growing against all the pink in October.

Pink Critics Weigh In

Women with breast cancer have been leading the charge against these awareness efforts in pink that they feel have become more about marketing to a desirable demographic than about curing breast cancer. Barbara Ehrenreich criticizes the artificial cheerfulness of the campaign, claiming that people’s buying cutesy pink products in the name of her disease makes her feel like she’s “six years old.” Dr. Susan Love wonders why, “with billions of dollars going toward ‘the cure,” we’re still using ‘slash, burn, and poison” treatments and spending next to nothing on investigating the causes of the disease.”

Scientists agree that reducing breast cancer—a complicated disease that takes many forms and manifests itself in myriad ways—to something for which there might one day be a single “cure,” is a medical fantasy. For as often as breast cancer products sell their pink products for a “cure,” oncologists are quick to remind patients that the word “cure” is really not always the appropriate term when it comes to living with cancer.

These and other questions about the effectiveness of NBCAM have been addressed in a new documentary called “Pink Ribbon, Inc.,” by Samantha King, which was released in May 2012. Breast cancer patients who are critical of all the pink in October have created the hashtag #pinknausea on Twitter to discuss their concerns with the state of the breast cancer awareness movement. Some critics have gone after companies that attach pink ribbons to products that are known carcinogens, and a nonprofit website encourages concerned citizens to donate money directly to cancer research instead.

Consequences for Prostate Cancer Advocacy

So what does all the concern about National Breast Cancer Awareness Month have to do with prostate cancer advocacy? Prostate cancer advocates have long felt that their cause is being overshadowed by the ubiquity of pink ribbons in the public sphere. No similar onslaught of blue products can be found during September, which is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. But perhaps there shouldn’t be. As prostate cancer advocacy and awareness grows, there is much to be learned from the women’s movement. But, as breast cancer advocates themselves note, there is a downside to all the enthusiasm. The October sea of cheery pink consumerism has begun to drown out the concerns of the very women it purports to help.

QUESTIONS: In what ways should prostate cancer advocacy model itself after breast cancer advocacy? In what ways should it differ?

Source: Mary Elizabeth Williams, “The Tyranny of Pink,” Salon (30 May 2012). Accessed October 16, 2012.


  1. Bill Moore says

    Very well written Craig. Does make one think as I have been trying to think of ways to spread awareness like “the pink” but after reading this, am I really wanting to take away from what the true objective is? To spread awareness and not for it to be another vehicle for some company to use for marketing. Thanks for this blog…gives me another thing to ponder…

  2. Greg Hoffman says

    Interesting post, Craig. – I, like Bill Moore, have been trying to do things locally to advance awareness of prostate cancer. I’m leaning more towards ideas that follow my paraphrasing of the old adage, “Actions speak louder than words.” Mine goes..”Actions speak louder than ribbons…and save more lives!” I’m trying to figure out if there is a way to get a mobile screening program put in place to, at minimum, get men to get educated on the subject and in a best possible scenario, provide a DRE and PSA test. Instead of Going for the Cure, we should be Going for Better Detection and Treatment/Support and leave the Cure activity to our Young Investigators/Scientists and Bio-Med folks. Keep up the great work of getting the word out about Prostate Cancer, Craig.

  3. says

    Excellent piece, Craig. I agree, as we men desire to “see more blue” every September, we need to do so in a way the fosters real discussion of the issues and the impact of the disease on families and society. We need to avoid mass consumerism and find a genuine approach that delivers the best result, not necessarily a shopping cart full of pink. I lost it about a year ago when I saw buckets of fried chicken for a cure. With all the research that has been conducted on the effects of diet and nutrition on cancer prevention and survival…,Really…?

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