Just exactly when did pink become the new black? Those little pink ribbons have been steadily popping up in the marketplace since they first became a symbol of breast cancer awareness 20 years ago. But lately there has been an explosion of pink. Those ribbons seem to be everywhere—yogurt cups, tennis shoes, cosmetic products, that generic-looking window cleaner you get at Sam’s Club and hundreds of other products. Just a couple of weeks ago, KFC unveiled “Buckets for the Cure,” giving its famous red a rest in a show of support.
It was clear that pink had officially entered the zeitgeist when Major League Baseball and the National Football League got on board, with players wielding pink bats and donning pink cleats. For a female-based cause to penetrate the male world to its core, well, that’s a shocking degree of market saturation. That’s a full-fledged pink movement.
But why pink and why now? With all the issues out there in need of awareness, research and financial support, from prostate cancer to AIDS, how did this one campaign come to so thoroughly dominate? There are more than a dozen ribbons whose colors stand for other important causes. Heart disease is the No.1 killer of women, and according to the American Cancer Society, more women die from lung cancer than breast cancer every year. Yet somehow pink has become our No. 1 cause.
“Breast cancer knows no boundaries,” says Stephanie Kirby, executive director at Susan G. Komen for the Cure Southern Nevada. “Breast cancer can happen to anyone, rich or poor, old or young. It’s not gender, economically or religiously related. Its span can be felt by everyone.”
What’s also different is the extent to which those feelings are being shared publicly by people in the spotlight. Our athletic warriors, we’ve been finding out lately, know a thing or two about the pain behind the pink they wear on the field. Many have had mothers and wives suffer from breast cancer, including Los Angeles Angel Jered Weaver, Arizona Cardinal Larry Fitzgerald and Minnesota Viking Brett Favre.
The most recent and dramatic public moment came a few weeks ago, when breast cancer took center stage at the granddaddy of all golf events, the Masters. After sinking the final putt to win the four-day tournament, Phil Mickelson, wearing a hat sporting a pink ribbon, embraced his cancer-stricken wife, Amy, who’d been too weary to attend until the very end. It was an intensely real scene that had nothing to do with marketing. You could say that it tied together the logic of the pink movement for everybody in one neat little bow of understanding.
There are a number of cases where celebrities have been afflicted by the disease. Funny girl Christina Applegate was diagnosed in 2008 and had to postpone the taping of her show to undergo surgery and fight her battle. Singer Kylie Minogue was diagnosed in 2005, leading to a canceled tour, and Sheryl Crow has publicly fought the disease since 2009. Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed the day the presidential election ended in 2004, and tennis star Martina Navratilova revealed in April that she was being treated. These women can afford the best health care in the world, but nothing could protect them from breast cancer.
The extensive media coverage of these once-private struggles has allowed more women to feel more comfortable with their own fight against breast cancer. It has opened the doors to a public discussion of breast cancer and its survival measures. “As the fear decreases, activism increases,” Kirby says. Just do the math: the more survivors, the more awareness. And the more awareness, the more survivors.
Since Susan G. Komen for the Cure formed in 1982 and started hosting races to raise money and awareness, pink has inched its way into the public consciousness. And don’t think for a second that marketing hasn’t made a difference. In 1991—the year the first ribbons were handed out—there were only seven races in the United States. This year there are more than 140 all over the world, making it the largest series of 5K races.
The organization went from awarding a $30,000 grant in 1982 to multiple grants adding up to more than $100 million in 2008. Overall, the federal government now devotes nearly $900 million yearly for breast cancer research, up from the $30 million in 1982.
Locally, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Southern Nevada has gotten a boost from the pink surge in recent years. Its “Race for the Cure” had 13,000 participants in 2005 and then jumped to 20,000 in 2007. That’s no surprise to Kirby, who traces the boom back to that latter year, when Komen created the “running” pink ribbon as an official trademark logo. That’s when “things really just exploded,” she says, “as our message was matched with the nationally known image.”
Fundraising has followed participation stride for stride. In 2006, the Southern Nevada Komen affiliate provided more than $300,000 in grants serving uninsured and underinsured women and men. In 2009, that number increased to more than $800,000 in Southern Nevada.
Thanks to this research, more and more women (and men) are getting screenings, which continues to be the most effective tool for early detection of breast cancer. According to Komen, 75 percent of women over 40 now receive regular mammograms, compared with 30 percent in 1982.
And this statistical improvement has had far-reaching effects.
Look no further than Nevada Cancer Institute, which was able to purchase and fund the Hope Coach, a mobile mammography van, in that first year of the pink movement, 2007. Tracie Stuckey-Arana, breast imaging manager at NVCI and head of the program, proudly gives a tour of the Hope Coach, which features a beautiful blue skylight that gives visitors an immediate sense of comfort. Going to the doctor for a breast exam is no fun, but the Hope Coach helps soothe a patient’s nerves.
The vehicle also reduces another obstacle between women and mammographies—money. The Hope Coach has screened thousands of local uninsured and low-income women for free, and it has helped detect cancer in many women who would not have otherwise been able to afford to be screened, Stuckey-Arana says.
Many of them are now among the 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in America—the largest group of cancer survivors. According to recent statistics from the American Cancer Society, survival rates have gone up a solid 10 percent in the past 10 years, an increase largely attributable to more awareness and more screenings. And that is a pretty strong testament that there is a method to all of this pink madness.