The Truth About Pink Ribbon Products — And What You Can Do To Make A Real Impact For People With Breast Cancer

"Pink is not a cure."

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In honor of the month, we will be highlighting the stories of those affected, as well as the people who come to their aid and help bring awareness to the issue.

We've all come to recognize pink ribbons as a symbol for breast cancer. We see the ribbon on yogurt containers, makeup, sporting good products, T-shirts, tote bags, pinned to people's uniforms, and more. These items are supposed to help raise awareness about the disease, but they may not be doing as much good as one might think. 

Earlier this month, breast cancer survivor Tracie Marie wrote a Facebook post about the problem with pink products. The post was accompanied by a photo showcasing her double mastectomy scars as well as her many medications. 

"While the majority of people believe that Breast Cancer is a pink ribbon, a pink Pom Pom, a pen with a pink ribbon, a tote with a pink ribbon, an encap at your local Walmart engaging you to be a 'part of the cure,'" she wrote. "First, a hard reality, you are not being part of the cure, you're just throwing your money away to propaganda, uniforms for NFL cheerleaders, and kiosk after kiosk with items from handbags to ziplock bags." 


Marie goes on to point out that the money spent on these items are often just helping the companies selling them, not people with breast cancer. These items are meant to raise awareness, but aren't helping to find a cure or better treatments. 

"A pink ribbon isn't the men and women fighting for their lives with metastatic breast cancer," Marie wrote. "I cannot comprehend how people can not grasp the simple concept that if you cure stage 4 you cure them all. It's that simple. You will not have to worry about dying because, there's a cure if you get to that point."

She also pointed out that breast cancer is often sexualized. 

"Showing models with fake scars, beautiful bodies and breasts with the strap so perfectly dangling from her shoulder. That's not what breast cancer is. It's CTs, surgeries, amputations, biopsies, MRIs, X-rays, radiation, chemo, IVs, blood tests, fear, worry, hate, anger, confusion, sadness, loneliness, medications, check ups, anxiety, depression, insomnia, pain," Marie wrote. She also cleared up a common misconception that women with breast cancer receive "free boob jobs."

"In no way did any of us receive a free boob job. We amputated them and had foreign objects placed in our skin to resembles the breasts we once had. We tattoo our nipples on, we get prosthetic ones, or we go without. But none of it was free," she wrote. "Save the Tatas, save second base, no bra day with a bunch of nipples poking out in no way supports those with Breast Cancer. This is what a lot of cancer really looks like! Pink isn't pretty, it's not a ribbon and it definitely doesn't help us!" 

Marie's Facebook post has since gone viral. It's been shared nearly 200,000 times and has more than 112,000 likes. It struck a cord with many survivors, people currently battling breast cancer, and their families because it showed a side of breast cancer so many don't see. 

And Marie isn't the only one trying to send this message. 

Twenty-year-old Brittney Beadle also shared her double mastectomy scars in a series of Instagram photos. In one of them, she's wearing a sticker on her chest that reads, "This is not pink." 

"I had a double mastectomy at 18, went through chemotherapy, lost my hair, had radiation to my brain twice, and I get a targeted chemo every three weeks for the rest of my life. This is my reality and this is why we need a cure, but unfortunately many companies and organizations that claim to support breast cancer research have become more about raising awareness with a pretty pink ribbon rather than actually trying to help find a cure," she wrote in the Instagram post. "I'm not totally against the pink ribbon, but I am against what it has become. Unfortunately, pink ribbons don't save lives. If you would like to help find a cure there are some really great organizations out there, such as METAvivor, that are making a real effort to help find one. That is where our donations should be going to!" 

The organization Breast Cancer Action backs up Marie and Beadle's sentiments. In 2002, they launched the Think Before You Pink campaign in response to the growing concerns about all the pink products hitting shelves that were supposed to somehow help those fighting breast cancer. 

"As part of the campaign, we coined the term 'pinkwashing' to describe the specific hypocrisy when a company that claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, but at the same time produces, manufactures and/or sells products that are linked to the disease," Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, told A Plus. 

Some examples? "When the world's largest breast cancer charity, Susan G. Komen, commissioned a perfume in 2011 that contained hormone disruptors and other chemicals of concern, that was pinkwashing," Jaggar explained. "When Bee Sweet Citrus and Wonderful Citrus, the U.S.'s largest citrus grower and the company behind Halos® mandarins, slapped pink ribbons on their citrus in 2016, but used leftover wastewater from oil corporations to irrigate their produce, that was pinkwashing." 

Corporations use cause marketing to their benefit and take advantage of those suffering from breast cancer as a result. 

"They not only sell more products in the short term, but they also build their brand and customer loyalty in the long term. No one knows exactly how much money companies are making through pink ribbon marketing, but it's been estimated to be hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars," Jaggar said. "To sell products, companies must sell simple stories and they do this by building on both fear and hope related to breast cancer." 

It's been 25 years since the first pink ribbon products helped launch the breast cancer industry, but there's not much to show for it. "Today, the empty awareness, the misinformation, the profiteering, the pinkwashing, the degrading of women, the "tyranny of cheerfulness" hides the harsh realities of this disease," Jaggar said. 

Breast cancer deaths in the U.S. are down by 39 percent, according to the American Cancer Society, but it is still the second leading cause of cancer death in women. It's time that we take real action to change that — and it starts with thinking beyond pink ribbons. 

"Ribbons have come to overshadow women living with and at risk of breast cancer," Jaggar said. "Disconnected from action, awareness is not only not useful, it can take needed resources away from meaningful action. Indeed, today an extraordinary amount of money, talent and time is spent promoting pink ribbons for awareness, and yet too little has changed. There is too little to show for the billions of dollars spent on pink ribbon products, promotions, and publicity stunts. Breast cancer remains an urgent public health crisis and social justice issue. Women at risk of and living with breast cancer need more effective, less toxic treatments and we need a focus on true prevention so fewer women are diagnosed." 

So, how can you make a positive impact instead of buying pink ribbon products?

One important way you can make a difference is by donating directly to organizations who are working to fight breast cancer. Breast Cancer Action encourages people to think specifically about how they want to help. For example, research for prevention, policy advocacy so our regulatory systems prioritize public health, or financial support for low-income women. Then, identify a charity working to make an impact in that area and donate directly to them. This could mean donating your time, money, or resources. 

In addition, help to fight pinkwashing. Breast Cancer Action developed a resource for questions you should ask before you spend your money on a pink product. Their Critical Questions for Conscious Consumers lists questions such as "Does any money from this purchase go to support breast cancer programs? How much?" and "What organization will get the money?"

"If you see a company that is making money by claiming to care about breast cancer and yet not contributing to necessary change, reach out to tell them what you think about their promotion. Tell them what they can do to make a meaningful difference for people affected by breast cancer," Jaggar suggested. "Or if you want to help make change, use our Legislative Activists Toolkit to tell your Congressional or local legislators what they can do to address and end the breast cancer epidemic. Finally, help spread the word by telling others about our work." 

Breast cancer is a public health crisis. It's painful, ugly, expensive, and fatal. Let's stop putting our money into useless pink products. Instead, let's work toward prevention and finding more effective, less toxic treatments for those diagnosed. 


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