Breast Cancer Awareness Month Is a Feel-Good Marketing Ploy

Andrea Currie

Staff Writer

Since its creation in 1985, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month has been a history of cancer commercialization, with most donations going to large corporations rather than to smaller local grassroots organizations which struggle to provide needed services.

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) was founded in 1985 by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), a British company. Among ICI’s pharmaceutical products was Tamoxifen, an early breast cancer treatment that is still widely used.

ICI changed its name to AstraZeneca in a 1999 merger. The domain now redirects to the AstraZeneca HealthCare Foundation page, which proclaims its affiliation with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In 2013, the Foundation gave $45,000 to partners of NBCAM. By contrast, they contributed over $3.5 million to their Connections for Cardiovascular Health program.

The pink ribbon first appeared in fall 1991 as a handout to participants of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. It was popularized in fall 1992, when Estée Lauder cosmetics counters distributed 1.5 million pink ribbons, along with instructions for breast self-exams, as a tie-in to Self magazine’s second annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month issue.

Alexandra Penney, Self magazine’s editor-in-chief at the time, initially asked the activist Charlotte Haley to partner with the magazine in the ribbon promotion. Since 1990, Haley had been hand-making peach-colored ribbons and distributing them by word of mouth, urging people to wear the ribbons as a protest against the National Cancer Institute’s 5% spending rate on cancer prevention, out of a budget of $1.8 billion.

Haley refused the offer. “She wanted nothing to do with us. Said we were too commercial,” recalled Penney in a later interview with journalist Sandy Fernandez. Lawyers for Self magazine recommended changing the ribbon color to avoid infringement, so the magazine staff chose pastel pink.

Two decades later, this pastel pink ribbon is ubiquitous in October. Despite the marketing, not all of the manufacturers of these products donate much, if anything, to breast cancer awareness, let alone research into treatment or prevention.

For example, Staples sells “Breast Cancer Awareness Paper Clips [that] come in a distinctive pink, representing the fight against breast cancer,” from which no proceeds go to charity.

While the big players bring in millions, local grassroots organizations sometimes struggle. Capital Region Action Against Breast Cancer (CRAAB!) is an Albany-based nonprofit organization that works to eradicate breast cancer and improve treatment for the disease through advocacy, education, and services. This summer, CRAAB! announced that it was cutting staff hours and services due to lack of funding.

Margaret Roberts, a founder, current board member, and former Director at CRAAB!, said that she liked that Breast Cancer Awareness Month raised awareness about the disease, but she was dismayed that less than 5% of the total money raised goes to research on how to prevent breast cancer. “What we’d like to see is how to go from the pink ribbons to prevention,” Roberts said.

Since its founding in 1997, CRAAB! has focused on the link between environmental factors and breast cancer, offering programs on nutrition, environmental toxins, and safe cosmetics.

CRAAB!’s past legislative efforts, in collaboration with the New York State Breast Cancer Network (NYSBCN), include helping pass a law that banned Bisphenol-A (BPA) in plastic products for children under age 3 in 2010. The organization’s ultimate goal is to ban BPA from all plastics, since hundreds of studies in humans and animals have linked BPA exposure to many health problems, including breast cancer and prostate cancer.

In addition to advocacy, CRAAB! offers a variety of free exercise programs throughout the Capital Region for survivors. Roberts said, “It has been well documented that physical activity improves healing and decreases the risk of recurrence.” Many of these programs also act as support groups, she said, since most women who participate get to know each other well. However, CRAAB! has been forced to cut back on its offerings due to lack of funding.

“A lot of grant funders won’t provide money for these types of programs,” said Roberts, adding that CRAAB! used to partner with Susan G. Komen, but the national organization now focuses on providing screenings rather than services for survivors.

CRAAB! is always in need of money, and in keeping with its mission, it focuses on local fundraising. On Oct. 25 at 7:00 p.m., CRAAB! is hosting a Mom Prom at Wolf’s 1-11 in Albany. All proceeds from contests, raffles and silent auctions will go to the organization. Later this month, the What Women Want! Expo, a free event to be held from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 30 at the Excelsior Springs in Saratoga, will donate proceeds from the VIP hour and from Pink Signature Drinks to CRAAB!.

Roberts said that even this local fundraising is not enough for CRAAB! to maintain a full-time office. The organization gladly accepts donations large or small. “Every little bit helps,” said Roberts.


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