Breast Cancer Awareness Month — putting pink into historical perspective

Breast Cancer Awareness Month — putting pink into historical perspective
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As October draws to a close, we can expect to see fewer and fewer brands that “think pink.” Breast cancer advocacy by national organizations that run the gamut from the National Football League and NASCAR, to the likes of Kohl’s and even Starbucks, have recently drawn the ire of critics for trivializing the disease through identification with this particular hue.

Yet, the accusation that pink detracts from the seriousness of the disease is an over-simplification of what the color signifies and its historic role in helping raise awareness as well as significant funding for research, screening, treatment, outreach, and education.

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Having spent several decades involved in the evolution of cancer awareness, we have witnessed increases in interest and funding of initiatives related to reducing the burden of cancer in the United States and throughout the world.

 

This time has provided us with perspectives that can shed some light on the significance of pink in the 1980s and 1990s, and how its eventual ubiquitous use may have led to overshadowing its original intent and subsequent accomplishments.

When Suzy Komen was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978, the stigmatized disease was seldom mentioned in public, let alone referenced by the news media. At that time there was a limited understanding about the biology of breast cancer, and few effective therapies, only a few breast cancer centers, and obviously no Internet for the dissemination of information and access to answers. Cancer was thought to be death sentence, and worse yet, by some, feared to be contagious.

It was a very different time then, and the Komen organizers felt they needed a color to help rally interest and offer hope. Pink was Suzy Komen’s favorite color, and was adopted to serve as a visual catalyst that helped spur a national movement about cancer awareness and outreach. For the past 35 years, Susan G. Komen and others have helped increase research funding that has since resulted in a nearly 40 percent decrease in deaths due to breast cancer from 1989 and 2015, according to a recent American Cancer Society report.

Today, Susan G. Komen gives 40 percent of its research funds toward solutions to metastatic disease, and since its founding has been focused on funding disparities and quality-of-care issues through its Race for the Cure and other outreach efforts in communities.  

And although pink originally served as a symbolic means to rally support for research and community health, it is true that it has been copied and co-opted by many other groups and individuals, which may have collectively caused saturation of the color in recent years.

And, yes, we can also understand why some may view pink as not reflecting the realities facing cancer patients today; but everything should be put in context before being condemned.

It’s important to “think pink” in proper historical context, not only during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but year-round. To the one-in-eight women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and their families, the pink hue carries the potential to educate and inspire. It also provides hope and funding through advocacy that has helped achieve advances allowing numerous breast survivors to live with rather than die from the disease, with the hope of preventing it altogether soon.

Nancy Brinker is a global cancer advocate and the founder of Susan G. Komen, the world's largest breast cancer charity name after her sister. She has also served as U.S. ambassador to Hungary, U.S. chief of protocol and as a Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control to the U.N.'s World Health Organization. Find her on Twitter: @NancyGBrinker. Eric Rosenthal is the founder of the NCI-designated cancer centers public affairs network. Find him on Twitter: @etrosenthal.