When you see a pink ribbon in October, or any other time of year, you know what it means: breast cancer. It’s an internationally recognized symbol of breast cancer awareness, of moral support for breast cancer sufferers and survivors, of financial support for breast cancer research and hope for a cure.
But why a ribbon? And why pink?
According to Think Before You Pink’s History of the Pink Ribbon, the ribbon movement took flight in the 70s, when the wife of a hostage in Iran tied yellow ribbons around the trees in her front yard, to show hope for the safe return of her husband. Her story appeared on the nightly news, and people around the country tied their own yellow ribbons in a show of solidarity.
In 1990 AIDS activists adopted the ribbon concept – in red, the color of passion – to promote awareness of the disease. Two years later, the New York Times dubbed 1992 “The Year of the Ribbon.”
Later that year, Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, which had already been giving out pink ribbons at the Fall 1991 Race for the Cure in New York City, adopted the pink ribbon as the quintessential symbol of breast cancer awareness.
The move was inspired by 68-year-old Charlotte Haley, who had had several family members suffer from breast cancer. On her own, Haley had been distributing sets of peach-colored loops of ribbon with a card saying, “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon."
When approached by Self magazine Editor Alexandra Penney, which wanted to partner with Haley in her ribbon campaign, Haley declined, saying that the magazine was too commercial. For legal reasons, Self, in collaboration with breast cancer survivor Evelyn Lauder, senior corporate vice president at Estée Lauder, went its own way with the ribbon campaign, selecting a pink grosgrain ribbon, rather than Haley’s peach loops.
In the fall of 1992, Estée Lauder makeup counters handed out 1.5 million pink ribbons, along with a card with detailed instructions on breast self-exams. Wikipedia reports that in 1992, the pink ribbon was declared the official symbol of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Today, many breast cancer organizations, including Susan G. Komen and the National Breast Cancer Foundation, use the pink ribbon to promote awareness of the disease, and to support fundraising. Every year, especially in October, during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, thousands of products emblazoned with pink ribbons, or colored pink, are sold, with a portion of proceeds promised to support breast cancer awareness or research.