It’s the time of year when all our lattés become pumpkin spice and all our ribbons become pink. As we sip our seasonally-mandated beverages, it is very easy to forget the history behind those pink ribbons and why they are important.
In the 1980s, the American Cancer Society (ACS) and Imperial Chemical Industries (currently a part of AstraZeneca) began an incredible, concerted effort to raise awareness of breast cancer in the United States. This organized effort culminated in October of 1985 with a week-long event dedicated to educating the general public about breast cancer and breast cancer risk. Additionally, they hoped to raise funds for research into the cause, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of breast cancer. In the 1990s, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the Estée Lauder Companies individually presented the pink ribbon as the symbol of this crusade. Although the pink ribbon started as a small, discreet representation of someone’s support for breast cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, it quickly transformed into much more, taking on a life of its own. Individuals, small businesses, and multi-national companies alike proudly displayed and promoted the pink ribbon.
By the mid-2000s, a new phenomenon became apparent: pink fatigue. Overexposure to pink Octobers has led many people to approach the campaign more cynically. Every year, something new is adorned in pink ribbons. You can buy beribboned rubber ducks, padlocks, gloves, playing cards, slippers, mints, confetti, teddy bears, and various office supplies. Some hospitals even use pink paper hand towels in their facilities during the month of October. Saturating everything in sight with pink ribbons has made many individuals grow weary of the campaign and question if the exposure has truly helped. For a long time, the means of diagnosing breast cancer, the available treatments for breast cancer, and the methods of preventing breast cancer seemed to remain stagnant. Understandably, many tired of the pink ribbon campaign, becoming immune to the message. Some women even argued that the pink ribbon merely symbolized visibility for visibility’s sake and the true realities of breast cancer were lost in the sea of pink. In 2011, Barbara Ehrenreich reminded National Public Radio (NPR) that, “The fact that I’m alive and another woman is now dead doesn’t mean I’m a better person. I didn’t battle the disease more bravely—I’m lucky. The treatments are terribly debilitating and toxic. I can’t get behind the idea of awareness, awareness, awareness when we don’t have really effective and safe treatments.”
However, there are reasons for renewed faith and hope in the Power of Pink. For example, in 2016, PARP inhibitors (a group of pharmacological medications which act by preventing the activity of the enzyme poly ADP-ribose polymerase, or PARP) were introduced. Unlike chemotherapy which harms both cancerous and noncancerous cells, PARP inhibitors are targeted specifically to attach cancerous cells. Women treated with PARP inhibitors, especially those who carry mutations (gene changes) in BRCA1 or BRCA2, report that these treatments are more effective and less strenuous.
Most recently, early this year the United States Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) updated their recommendations for breast cancer risk assessment. These recommendations are intended for primary care physicians (PCP) and are specifically for female patients with a personal or family history of breast or ovarian cancer or ancestry associated with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations (such as Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry). If a PCP has a patient that matches any of these criteria, the PCP is now urged to use brief familial risk assessment tools to further refine which women may be at an increased risk to develop breast and ovarian cancer. The USPSTF now recommends that any woman with a positive risk assessment tool score (in other words, she is identified to be at an increased risk to develop breast and ovarian cancer) receive genetic counseling to understand her risk more clearly and to discuss the option of genetic testing. The USPSTF supports the benefits of genetic testing for at-risk women after proper consent and counseling about the risks, benefits, and limitations of the appropriate test.
Therefore, this October, let us take time to remember the true purpose of Pink: to raise global awareness of breast cancer and to save lives. This October, let us take time to remember the true power of Pink: that the money donated can provide both simple items that can help restore a person’s daily happiness and dignity (e.g, a wig, a wheelchair, hotel vouchers near the hospital where they receive treatment) and more complex, life-saving procedures (e.g., free mammograms, research into revolutionary treatment, assistance with medical expenses like copays and deductibles). And lastly, this October, be proud to wear your pink and support the fight against breast cancer.
If you are concerned about your risk for breast or ovarian cancer (or any inherited cancer syndrome), please contact Advanced Tele-Genetic Counseling for information regarding telemedicine or go to nsgc.org to find a cancer genetic counselor near you.