To understand how breast cancer awareness and survivors are now openly embraced and celebrated, one must look at where it began in the early 1980s and understand how it parallels the growing empowerment of women to call attention to their issues and demand recognition and funding for research, said Elizabeth Thompson, the president of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, which is largely responsible for the pink ribbon explosion.
Back in the early ’80s when the foundation was running its first Race for the Cure event in Dallas, reporters covering the event were told they couldn’t say it was an event about “breast cancer” – they were told to say it was about “women’s health,” Thompson said. Komen founder Nancy Brinker, who created the group to honor a pledge to her dying sister to wipe out breast cancer, took the television reporter’s microphone and announced on air, “ ‘We are here for a walk for BREAST CANCER,’ ” Thompson said. “And women in the audience just cheered and roared.”
Women were beginning to come into their own professionally then and changing the landscape around them, she said.
“In the workplace, that’s when we started creating laws in our offices about sexual harassment,” Thompson said. “Women were starting to break glass ceilings. Women were asking for better, more individualized health care. Women were going back to school in record numbers and becoming doctors and lawyers and having very high-level professional degrees.”
Drugs specifically for breast cancer, such as Tamoxifen, were coming out and better treatment was leading to more survivors. In the 1990s, that translated into more legislative power as those survivors and their supporters descended on Capitol Hill and lobbied for more research funding and support, she said.
“No one wants to see a sea of pink landing on their doorway when it is time to make a vote about federal funding for that,” Thompson said.
Federal investment in breast cancer research went from $30 million in the early ’80s to $900 million. The late ’90s also saw Komen and other foundations reaching out to corporate partners looking for a socially responsible project to support.
“And cause marketing was born,” Thompson said. Those companies would get the pink ribbon on their products and a portion of the proceeds would go to foundations for support and research. Since its inception, Komen has raised more than $1.9 billion for support through its partner arrangements and its signature Race for the Cure events. Sometimes it can be frustrating for people touched by other cancers to see that overwhelming success while they struggle to gain more recognition for theirs. Kristin Busby, the mother of a 10-year-old boy battling leukemia, wears a gold ribbon but hardly anyone knows what it signifies. During September, which advocates say is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month but it is also claimed by prostate cancer advocates and other diseases, she begins to see the pink cropping up everywhere in stores.
“And I’m like, ‘Wait! Give us our month! And then start in October,’ ” Busby said. “I’m not knocking breast cancer at all. But we’re just inundated with pink ribbons everywhere. It’s just frustrating because we get very little funding (for research) for our kids.”
But there is something about breast cancer that is different than other cancers, perhaps because it is almost all women, said Pam Anderson, the director of cancer services at University Hospital and a breast cancer survivor herself.
“Women have kind of joined forces in talking to other women and sharing their stories,” she said, whereas a general cancer support group don’t get that kind of enthusiasm or response.
Perhaps most importantly, awareness is leading to more screening and early detection, and better outcomes. According to the American Cancer Society, the death rate from breast cancer has fallen steadily since 1990, about 3.2 percent per year for women younger than age 50 and about 2 percent per year for those older than 50.
Ultimately, it is the message behind the pink that matters.
“I think it is a sign of solidarity and unity,” Thompson said. “It is an instant connector of people who know what it means.”
And by now, everyone knows what it means.