Monday, February 13, 2012

Is the Pink Ribbon Holding us Back from Ending Breast Cancer?

I recently saw the Canadian produced documentary 'Pink Ribbons Inc', a very thought-provoking film asking whether breast cancer pink ribbons have become a profit-making rather than disease-eliminating industry. The film has had a big impact on me and I believe that part of Butterfly Collection's job is to be responsible to your breast health as well as your comfort and style so I want to share with you some of the themes from the documentary.

Pros of the Film
  1. It raised questions about how many chemicals in our food and cosmetics mimic the hormone estrogen,  something that is linked to breast cancer. 90% of the 100,000 commercial chemicals in the US have never been tested for their effects on human health - we're eating and wearing some of these chemicals!
  2. It asked whether we've become too used to the Pink face of breast cancer and forgotten the ugly reality which should make us want to demand better legislation about our consumable products and environment.
  3. It showed a group of women who will die from breast cancer talking about how alienated they feel from the breast cancer fund raising because it doesn't resonate with the reality of breast cancer. (Check out this incredible photographic tribute to women facing breast cancer

Cons of the Film
  1. The commentators didn't come down on the women who walk, run etc for The Cure however, they implied that they were being completely pink-washed with the warm and fuzzy marketing. It neglected to acknowledge that the reason Pink resonates with these women is because it represents the love they feel for their sisters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, friends etc. The warm and fuzzy part is the love we feel for one another and that's why millions of women around the world want to get out and fund raise.
  2. They went a bit overboard on the sinister background music while a lone runner pounded the roads of San Fransisco. 
  3. There wasn't quite enough clear direction on the things women can do TODAY to change the breast cancer funding and knowledge available to them.

How Quickly Things Got Off Track
The original breast cancer awareness ribbon was salmon coloured and attached to a postcard made by Charlotte Haley, a woman whose family had been widely affected by cancer, and distributed to her family and friends. The postcard read “The National Cancer Institute’s 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.” The original message was all about cancer prevention and research transparency.

Estee Lauder wanted to buy the rights to Charlotte's ribbon to use as the symbol for fund-raising, Charlotte said no, it was a symbol of demanding rights and change not money.  Estee Lauder changed the colour to Pink and so was born one of the most successful marketing campaigns of all time.

Pink Product Overload
Over the last few years there has been an alarming increase in the number of 'pink products', many of which are obviously not breast health friendly; the most frightening example is a pink ribbon bucket from KFC! Although the specific causes of breast cancer are not known it doesn't take a genius to figure out that filling your body with saturated fat isn't part of 'The Cure'! So why are we jumping into bed with anyone willing to donate a few dollars to The Cure?

The Fairy Pink-Mother
The company behind all the Pink Ribbon affiliations (including the KFC debacle) is Susan G Komen for The Cure (most recently under fire for stopping funds for breast cancer screening at Planned Parenthood centers). The film looks closely at the activities and motivations of this company and asks whether advances in breast cancer research are being harmed not helped because SGK has lost sight of ending not perpetuating breast cancer.
Great resources at Worldwide Breast Cancer website
North American has one of the Highest Breast Cancer Rates
Breast Cancer rates are higher in North American and Western Europe than the rest of the world. Because the rates are so high in Canada, America, the UK and parts of Western Europe you'd expect a lot of money is being spent on working out which environmental factors have an impact on breast cancer rates, right? Wrong.

Does the Pink Ribbon Prefer 'The Cure' over 'The Cause'?
Over a billion dollars has been raised for all sorts of different researchers looking for a cure. A cure would of course be an incredible breakthrough and change the face of mortality rates across the world. The pharmaceutical company that finds a cure will literally make billions so the stakes are financially high and this is the biggest reason the focus is on The Cure and not The Cause of breast cancer.

If we still don't know The Cause why are we focused on The Cure?
The short answer is, Money. Firstly, pharmaceutical companies can make billions from a cure but they won't make a penny if it turns out we can eliminate The Cause. Secondly, studying which environmental factors contribute to breast cancer would include poking around the manufacturing processes and chemicals used by companies like Revlon, Avon and Ford all of which generate millions of sales from Pink Ribbon activities. 

The Vicious Pink Circle
Some of the major players in Pink Ribbon fund raising could also be some of the biggest sources of chemicals in our daily lives that are causing the very problem they're promoting the cure for. It's like buying cigarettes to find a cure for lung cancer. If big players like Susan G Komen continue to distribute funds in a way that doesn't upset their biggest sponsors then we may never get to the root of the problem.

Revlon's pink ribbon slogan, 'The Beauty of Giving', probably best sums up the vicious circle of some breast cancer fund-raising tactics.  
  1. The beauty of giving is that you can keep giving (or buying makeup in this case) as long as there's a cause to buy for.
  2. By making breast cancer more 'beautiful' in a pink bow it doesn't seem as scary or urgent to solve so we keep buying products (that potentially cause the problem).
  3. By giving some sales proceeds to charity Revlon can avoid being asked to research whether chemicals in their make-up contribute to breast cancer, because no-one's going to bite the hand that feeds them.
Five Things you Can Do To Change Things
The message that struck me most is that we need to shift from finding a Cure to finding the Cause. Something has changed in the last 40 years to cause more women to get breast cancer - we can find out what that something is and prevent it from killing women. Prevention may very well be The Cure.

1) Download this Think Before You Pink Toolkit to find out how to spend your pink ribbon dollars effectively

2) In the US there are no restrictions used on body care products. You can demand change by contacting your Representative and asking them to support the Safe Cosmetics Act.

3) Canadians can demand changes in cosmetics laws by filling in this super easy pledge at Environmental Defense.

4) Become familiar with Dr Susan Love's website, it has a no-nonsense approach to preventing, treating and researching a cure for breast cancer. Read her take on the Race for the Cause not the Cure.

5) Join the campaign for Safer Cosmetics, including getting toxic chemicals out of baby products.

I'll be doing a follow up blog with more info on the cosmetics side of this story - I for one rely on my war-paint but I'm not willing to risk my life on looking fabulous. I've found some great companies doing beautiful (inside and out) work in the cosmetics and beauty industry.

Pink Ribbons Inc is jam-packed full of details about the fund-raising methods, disposal of funds and general 'pink-washing' that keep us from eliminating breast cancer from our lives. For those of you who are able to go and see it I highly recommend it, for everyone else I hope some of the points in this blog get you thinking in a new way about our role in demanding a cure for a disease that kills 59,000 women in North America every year. xx


  1. Unfortunately, this isn't just breast cancer either. We live in a society that is full of "cures" when we should really be also looking at the cause. "I have a headache" "Well here is a Tylenol" Instead we should be looking at what causes that headache. This isn't to say we shouldn't be finding cures too, because it is inevitable that some people will still get sick, and we should still be able to help them, but it is a case of throwing good money at bad. Medication is such big business and it is so much easier than dealing with the real problems that this is going to be an uphill battle for a long time. Kudos for writing about it.

    1. Thank you so much for your comments Peter. Two of my immediate family members have survived several bouts of breast cancer so I'm incredibly grateful to the treatments and medication out there, however, it worries me greatly that breast cancer has become such a beacon for merchandising, it detracts from finding the cause. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  2. Thanks for your thorough blog about the movie and for providing these terrific resources. Women need to think about where they are putting their "green," not just whether to support pink.

    1. Thanks Elisabeth. It's the only thing I felt was missing from the film was some clear actions women can take to change things. I hope people find them useful.

  3. A few years ago Penn and Teller did a show about how the Pink Robbin in BullSh*T, their show Penn and Tellers Bullsh*t. When you buy a Pink Ribbon product exactly how much of money is going to Susan G Komen and other charities. Not as much moneys as you think. Then how much of that money is going is actually going to researching a cure/cause. Even less.

    It would be better for people that buy pink ribbon item, to just give money to cancer charities that are looking for a cause or cure directly. Or even give money directly to researchers themselves.

    1. Totally agree CoaCG, there is absolutely no harm in giving your research money directly to fantastic organizations like and

      Thank you for your comments xx

  4. Yes breast cancer is very dangerous and its chances are increasing day by day.Thanks for sharing its info with us.

    John from Store Hours

  5. I know this post is old, but I hope you will still see my comment!

    I just recently discovered my real bra size of 30HH, and I've been reading your blog a lot, and decided to go back through all of the old entries. It's been great to read! I love that you tackle issues we don't often hear about, especially in America (I've never heard anyone ask what lesbians want in underwear, for example).

    I have been against the pink ribbon system for a while now, but don't say anything about it because I expect people would attack me for the opinion. I'm glad you posted about it!

    Also, I highly encourage anyone who is interested in "the Cause" to read "The China Study" by T. Colin Campbell. Lifechanging. Also, "Your Life in Your Hands: Understand, Prevent, and Overcome Breast Cancer and Ovarian Cancer" by Jane Plant. Information about "the Cause" and prevention is out there... just not promoted by those who seek money from "the Cure."

    1. Thank you for these great resources Christine. I'm so glad you've found the blog useful. Our breasts are linked in so many ways to our overall health, happiness, confidence and well being so we try to cover all aspects of "Life in Big Boobs". xx

  6. It's important that you are aware that Planned Parenthood is NOT comprised of "facilities that largely provide abortions." This is incorrect. The majority of the work Planned Parenthood does is provide basic health care and cancer screening (including Pap smears and breast exams, mammography) for uninsured women. Approximately 3% of the work they do is termination of pregnancies. It's important that this misinformation is updated. For more details, go to:

    The backlash to Komen was based more on the fact that denying money to provide basic reproductive health care based on a personal opinion is ridiculous, and would contradict Komen's alleged commitment to women's health. Thanks!