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Some breast cancer advocates are seeing red

Pink campaign seen as excessive, commercialized

PITTSBURGH — The country is awash in pink for breast cancer awareness month — and some women are sick of it.

While no one is questioning the need to fight the deadly disease, some breast cancer advocates are starting to ask whether one of the most successful charity campaigns in recent history has lost its focus.

“The pink drives me nuts,’’ said Cynthia Ryan, an 18-year survivor of breast cancer who also volunteers to help other women with the disease. “It’s the cheeriness I can’t stand.’’

Activists have even coined a new word: Pinkwashing.

That’s what they call it when a company or organization does a pink breast cancer promotion, but at the same time sells and profits from pink-theme products.


Some of the pink products have generated plenty of discussion among breast cancer advocates.

A Smith & Wesson 9mm handgun with pink pistol grip? The manufacturer says a “Portion of the Proceeds Will Be Donated to a Breast Cancer Awareness Charity.’’

You can get the “Pink Ribbon Combo’’ at Jersey Mike’s Subs, or the Sephora Collection Pink Eyelash Curler. One year, there was a pink bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The San Francisco group Breast Cancer Action has led the campaign to question pink products, but executive director Karuna Jaggar said they aren’t saying all such products are bad.

She said there’s no doubt that when the pink ribbon campaigns started about 20 years ago there was still a great need to raise awareness.

Breast cancer activists agree that the use of a ribbon to promote awareness evolved in stages. They note that in 1979 there were yellow ribbons for the American hostages in Iran; in 1990 AIDS activists used red ribbons to call attention to victims of that disease; and 1991 saw the first major use of the pink ribbon, when the Susan G. Komen Foundation gave them out at a New York City Race for cancer survivors.


But the ribbon symbol may tie into a far older tradition, according to the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. It notes that various versions of the song “ ‘Round Her Neck She Wore A Yellow Ribbon’’ have been popular for 400 years, all with the theme of displaying the ribbon for an absent loved one.

And it is clear that too many loved ones are still lost to the disease, despite many advances in diagnosis and treatment. The National Cancer Institute estimates that about 40,000 women will die of breast cancer this year, and 230,000 new cases will be diagnosed.

But Jaggar wonders whether more awareness is what is needed to reduce those numbers.

And Breast Cancer Action does take exception to products it considers potentially harmful - like a perfume the Komen Foundation introduced this year, “Promise Me.’’ Jaggar said the perfume contains some possibly toxic or hazardous ingredients, and Breast Cancer Action asked that Komen discontinue its sale.

Federal regulatory agencies don’t consider small amounts of those ingredients to be a threat, and Komen’s scientific and medical advisers didn’t believe there was any problem. But Komen said that to allay any concerns the next batch of “Promise Me’’ will be reformulated without the ingredients that were criticized.

Leslie Aun, a spokeswoman for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, based in Dallas, said the advocacy group isn’t apologizing for all the pink.


“Research doesn’t come cheap,’’ Aun said. “We need to raise money and we’re not apologetic about it.’’

Komen, founded in 1982, has contributed $685 million to breast cancer research and $1.3 billion to community programs that help with mammograms, transportation, and other needs, Aun said.

The Komen Foundation would love not to have to do marketing, but that is simply not realistic, she said.

“We don’t think there’s enough pink,’’ Aun said. “We’re able to make those investments in research because of programs like that.’’

Samantha King, a professor at Queens University in Ontario and author of the book “Pink Ribbons, Inc.,’’ said that at first people warned that she’d get hate mail for writing critically about the pink campaigns.

“And in fact, the opposite was true,’’ King said. “I had underestimated the level of alienation that many women felt.’’

King said she felt the Komen Foundation crossed the line a few years ago, when they partnered with Kentucky Fried Chicken on the pink bucket of fast food.

“What’s next, pink cigarettes for the cure?’’ King asked. “I think this really speaks to the fact that they’ve lost sight of their mission. Their primary purpose appears to be to sell products.’’