A couple weeks ago I was waiting for the train in Chicago when I looked up and in clear view was the Willis Tower, its tips emblazoned in pink.
I realized that the month had changed, and it was now October: Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a month that draws mixed emotions from me and probably many others around the globe. Pink is actually one of my favorite colors, but in October there's no escaping it.
It started for me with the assault on my inbox. Stores sending out emails of various products that can be purchased with a portion of the proceeds benefitting various breast or other cancer organizations. All of them wrapped up in pretty pink packaging.
On Sunday I'm sure to see National Football League players donning gloves, cleats and other gear in the color, a sight I don't think I will ever get used to.
This month you can buy almost anything in pink: T-shirts, bracelets, vacuum cleaners, even cars. And you might even feel good about dropping that cash or plastic on the counter because you believe that your money is going to a good cause. Most consumers believe they're supporting the fight to stamp out breast cancer, but who is that money helping?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 211,731 women and 2,001 men in the U.S. were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, the most recent year for which numbers are available. That same year, 40,676 women and 400 men in the United States died from breast cancer. It's the most common cancer in women, not counting some types of skin cancers.
It was in the early 1990s that the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation began using pink in its campaigns and Races for the Cure, but before it became a staple of the movement, a 68-year-old woman named Charlotte Haley was passing out cards attached with peach-colored ribbons, handmade in her dining room. The card read: "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." Haley was called on by Self Magazine and Estee Lauder, who wanted to give Haley national attention and use the ribbon for promotional purposes. Haley's answer was no. So the color of the ribbon was changed to avoid any legal problems, birthing the pink color that is now associated with breast cancer awareness. Haley's story has been written about in articles as well as in the book "Pink Ribbons, Inc." and in the documentary by the same name.
Since the inception of the Komen Foundation, it has invested $2 billion to fulfill its promise to end breast cancer, according to the organization's website. In the years since the outpouring of support for pink and breast cancer, the incidence of the disease has decreased by less than 1 percent in women and actually increased for black women in the U.S., according to the CDC. The mortality rate from breast cancer for women has decreased by 2 percent over the same time period, 2000 to 2009.
I think we're all very aware of breast cancer. It's all around us. Not only in the aisles of the stores and on the TV screen, but in the faces of countless women who I know, and who I know you know, who are undergoing treatment, who are in the remission stage or who have died of breast cancer.
When I saw the Willis Tower lit up pink last week, I thought of a dear family friend and neighbor Gail, who had been diagnosed multiple times with two different types of breast cancer and after eight years in remission, died two years ago at age 46, leaving behind two adult daughters and a daughter and son in their early teens. There was no amount of pink that could save her after the cancer spread to her spine.
I'm not saying don't run the races, don't attend the events, don't purchase that pink product. I'm just asking that before you do, you think about who those dollars are supporting, and if it's truly women like Gail and the hundreds of thousands of others who will be diagnosed with breast cancer.
To reach Sarah, email email@example.com or call (708) 326-9170 ext. 48.
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