What’s wrong with the pink ribbon?

October is “Breast Cancer Awareness” month. Just when you thought there could not be any more pink ribbons in the world, there are.

I have never liked the cutesy, little girl symbolism of a pink ribbon to represent breast cancer. I refuse to buy any product sporting a pink ribbon and I do not support any campaign promising to “end” breast cancer because those campaigns, however well intentioned, will not end breast cancer.

What I did not know until watching the National Film Board’s “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” is that Breast Cancer Awareness Month was started in 1985 as a partnership between the American Cancer Association and the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries, which is part of a conglomerate that makes breast cancer drugs. How clever is that? For a company that makes money selling breast cancer drugs to create a campaign to increase the number of women getting mammograms, which will increase the number of new diagnoses, which will increase sales? It’s perfect.

The documentary, based on Queen’s University professor Samantha King’s book “Pink Ribbons, Inc. – Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy,” also tells the story of the original breast cancer ribbon which wasn’t even pink! It was salmon-orange and created by an American woman named Charlotte Haley who made them out of cloth and attached them to postcards to send to politicians as a tool to lobby for more to be done politically about the breast cancer epidemic. Cosmetics company Estee Lauder and “Self” magazine approached her about making her ribbon a global symbol of breast cancer. Haley believed this would be more about profits than political activism so she refused. Corporate lawyers suggested using a different coloured ribbon. Focus groups of women identified that the most non-threatening, reassuring colour was pink – and that was the beginning of what King and others call the “pink-washing” of breast cancer.

Now we see the ubiquitous pink ribbons selling everything from carcinogen-containing cosmetics to air polluting automobiles to high fat fast foods coated in chemicals. Consumers feel good about supporting “breast cancer something,” although actually following the money to where it goes is difficult. What is there, actually, to show for the hundreds of millions of dollars raised “for breast cancer?” There is no overarching coordination in breast cancer research, which as King and others point out leads to needless repetition of some studies, and huge gaps in many areas. According to King, only about 15% of breast cancer research considers prevention, and only 5% looks at environmental factors.

The walks and runs and bikes “for the cure” take on an evangelical fervour where the “survivors” are paraded out and emotions run high and having a positive attitude is equated, literally, with being saved. What King calls “the tyranny of cheerfulness,” makes angry, despairing cancer patients hide those feelings while at the same time implying that their negative attitudes may just influence the outcome, if you know what we mean.

As a woman diagnosed with breast cancer when I turned forty, I for one call for an end to the perverse corporatization of breast cancer, and an end to the offensive pink logo that makes money for companies who may well be contributing to the underlying causes.

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  • just dropping in says:

    Hi Kathy. Thanks for a well thought out article. I think you will enjoy Professor Lochlann Jain’s work called, “Cancer Butch” which delves more into our cancer ‘fervour’, donations, and identity politics. It’s something I absolutely despise generally speaking, yet it’s a hard subject to tackle since it’s painted with a such a moral brush.

  • Karen Sandford says:

    I totally agree and I do not support those campaigns. I too have survived cancer, I hope, and I claim that “my” cancer (lymphoma) was caused by the same chemical companies that created the chemicals to treat it. This is perfect for them, the chemical industies are making more and more money at both ends.

    There are many better things we can do to prevent cancer. In my opinion we need to stop the never ending use of more and more pesticides and pay attention to GMOs. GMOs are the largest biogenetic experiment on humanity. How many people are actually aware of them? This is only one example.

    We can do better. Become informed!

  • Lori Kleinsmith says:

    Great post, Kathy, very well put. It is amazing to see the evolution of such campaigns that create a “feel good” response, yet are actually far from reaching the desired end result they say they are seeking. A major shift is needed! I compare this somewhat with our food banks and food drives to “end poverty” – how did we ever evolve into this misguided approach and discourse and how do we shift the focus to what would actually address structural causes of poverty?

  • Anna Delorme says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more! Anything pharmaceutically funded with never generate a cure or and “end” to anything except and endless supply of drugs and money into their ever expanding and insatiable pockets of greed.
    We deserve better than that.


Kathy Hardill


Kathy Hardill, MScN, RN(EC) is a Primary Care Nurse Practitioner who has been providing health care to people experiencing poverty, homelessness and other structural vulnerabilities for more than 30 years. She is a founding member of Health Providers Against Poverty and the Street Nurses’ Network in Ontario.

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