The Pink Ribbon

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”

October was always the month of Halloween, and my parents’ birthdays. 1985. The year I was born and also the year that the American Cancer Society partnered with Imperial Chemical Industries (now a part of AstraZeneca producing a range of breast cancer medications). They labelled October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Their aim was to encourage screening (mammography) to detect breast cancer. Ever since I’ve been diagnosed myself, October is not just about Halloween and birthdays anymore, it’s a month dedicated to a cause that means the world to me.

In 1979, Iranian students invaded the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans as hostages including Bruce Laingen who was the Chargé d’Affaires of the US embassy at the time. They were held captive for 444 days. His wife, Penne Laingen, did not believe that anger would help bring the hostages back. There was a song called “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree”, and that is exactly what she did. She tied a yellow ribbon around the trees at the front of her house. And this became a tradition adopted by many others. The yellow ribbon was a symbol of unity and hope while they waited for their loved ones to return home.

More than a decade later, the ribbon was changed into the looped form we see today. And the colour was changed to red, to signify love. The red ribbon was created to raise AIDS awareness. Jeremy Irons, a British actor, wore the red ribbon when he hosted the Tony Awards in 1991. The concept of ribbons went viral since. At around the same time, Charlotte Haley wanted to raise awareness about breast cancer after many people in her life battled this disease. She was extremely dedicated to her mission, and distributed handmade peach ribbons with notes urging for more funding for the prevention of breast cancer. She sent them to everyone everywhere, from supermarkets to governments. The year 1992 was known as the “The Year of The Ribbon” because ribbons emerged in many different colours to support lots of different causes.

Susan G. Komen is a foundation that initiated in 1982. It is named after Susan Komen herself. She lost her battle to breast cancer in 1980 at the age of 36. Her younger sister believed that Susan may have survived if more was known about breast cancer. The colour pink was used by the Komen Foundation since the beginning. In 1991, pink ribbons were distributed at their New York race because using ribbons to support a cause was particularly popular during that time. In 2007, they updated their logo from a pink abstract of a female runner to a pink “running ribbon”.

In 1992, the editor in chief of Self Magazine, Alexandra Penney wanted to collaborate with Charlotte Haley and use her peach ribbon to promote breast cancer in the magazine’s upcoming issue for breast cancer awareness. Charlotte refused to allow her hard work to turn into something commercial. The only legal way Self Magazine could use the ribbon would be by changing its colour, and so they changed it to pink. Alexandra Penney then worked with Senior Corporate Vice President of Estée Lauder, Evelyn Lauder, and launched the breast cancer campaign using the pink ribbon.This is how the pink ribbon actually came to life!

There’s a lot of controversy about the use of the pink ribbon nowadays. Pinkwashing. I don’t like to believe it’s actually true but unfortunately it is. It’s when companies just use the pink ribbon to market their products without donating (or donating extremely insignificant amounts) to breast cancer foundations. It’s also used to describe companies that use the pink ribbon to sell products that are known to do more harm than good. Helping breast cancer by selling products that have chemicals than can actually cause breast cancer? Very hypocritical and extremely wrong.

The pink ribbon. It doesn’t belong to a single organisation. It’s a symbol. A symbol of unity, hope, awareness, moral support, love and faith in a community that sticks together. A symbol that helps raise funds to find a cure to a disease that affects not only the patient but their loved ones too. When you donate, or buy a product with a pink ribbon, make sure you ask how much of your money is being donated and whether your money is going to a trustworthy cause. Together, we can make a difference. The idea of a ribbon started with a song that inspired a single person. And it caused a global impact. It starts with just one person doing the right thing, and a ripple effect just seems to follow.

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