As Breast Cancer Awareness Month comes to a close, it is important to remember the original purpose of this worldwide phenomenon, and the women who started it all.
The first use of a pink ribbon in connection with breast cancer awareness was when the Susan G. Komen Foundation handed them out to participants in its New York City race for breast cancer survivors in the 1991. The following year, the pink ribbon was adopted as the official symbol of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Alexandra Penney, the editor- in- chief of Self magazine, and Evelyn Lauder, the senior corporate vice president of Estee Lauder cosmetics company, and a breast cancer survivor herself, created the ribbon for distribution to stores and businesses in New York City.
However, the first Breast Cancer ribbon was actually peach colored and created by a much lesser known woman named Charlotte Hayley. Charlotte was a breast cancer survivor along with four generations of her family that had also fought the disease. Charlotte made the ribbons at her dining room table and personally handed them out with a card attached that read, “The National Cancer Institute’s annual budget is 1.8 billion US dollars, and only 5 percent goes to cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.” Charlotte distributed thousands of these cards and ribbons by hand and in addition, wrote to many prominent women of that time to spread the word.
Alexandra Penney and Evelyn Lauder approached Charlotte Hayley to attempt to adapt her idea with theirs and work together. Charlotte rejected their offer and refused to be part of what she felt was a commercial effort. In 2005, Lauder and Self Magazine changed the color of their ribbon to light pink to prevent Charlotte’s efforts to stop them.
Much has been said and written about the commercialization of this symbol, which has generated hundreds of millions of dollars for research. But is it really raising awareness of safer alternatives and cutting edge techniques and technology? Or is the pink ribbon just a symbol of surviving a dreaded and feared disease, much like a medal of honor? How far have we really advanced?
The Scar Project by photographer David Jay is a poignant, soulfully beautiful series of large scale portraits of young breast cancer survivors (ages 18-35) from all over the world. “The SCAR Project is an exercise in awareness, hope, reflection and healing. The mission is three-fold: raise public consciousness of early-onset breast cancer, raise funds for breast cancer research/outreach programs and help young survivors see their scars, faces, figures and experiences through a new, honest and ultimately empowering lens.” An exhibition of these amazing portraits is coming to the Washington, DC area soon.