October Is Breast Cancer Awareness Month & Why It Matters

We all see the little pink ribbon every year in October, and most people are aware that it is associated with Breast Cancer Awareness month, but not as many are aware of its roots and goals.  

About two years ago, my neighbor Debbie Sebiri was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. I witnessed her brave fight against this insipid disease. I’m happy to say that she has made it to the other side and is now cancer-free. This article is dedicated to Debbie, and all women facing this battle.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month comes every October, the display of the pink ribbon is often hard to miss. The fight against breast cancer has succeeded in promoting the visibility of the disease, in honor of those who have died from it and in giving patients the necessary resources for navigating their diagnoses. This fight, however, did not happen overnight, nor did it originate with the pink ribbon campaign which was conceived in the early 1990s.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Breast Cancer fundraising. Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

The 1970’s

The amount of social awareness of breast cancer owes much to the decades of committed activism beginning in the 1970s, driven in large part by the spirit of the women’s liberation movement.

Until this point in time, breast cancer was an “unspeakable condition” which women experienced silently and privately, with shame and social stigma rather than social support. It took the acts of individual women who spoke out about cancer, as well as feminist organizations that targeted the relationship between male-dominated medical establishments and female patients, for the issue to become publicized and less stigmatized.

During this period, second-wave feminism helped kickstart the women’s health movement, which was meant to empower women to demand greater knowledge about their own bodies, and freedom to make their own choices about their reproductive and sexual health.

Women challenged what they identified as a common power dynamic in medicine, in which male doctors claimed authority over female patients by dictating their care and denying them participation in the medical decision-making process. This led to the publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves, by the Boston Women’s Health Collective in 1973. This publication allowed for the creation of other educational projects to teach and educate women on how to examine their own bodies and advocate for their own healthcare needs.

Autonomy for Women

The lack of choices and autonomy for women was particularly evident with issues like sterilization, abortion, and childbirth; but it also applied to breast cancer. As early as the 1900s, women suspected of having breast cancer would undergo a “one step” operation, in which a surgeon would perform a biopsy along with a radical mastectomy. A patient would then typically wake up with her breasts, chest muscles, and lymph nodes entirely removed; regardless of the characteristics of her tumor, or her personal wishes.

One of the first women known to have protested this standard of care was Rose Kushner, a  journalist who discovered she had a breast lump in 1974. Kushner insisted on a diagnostic biopsy followed by a modified mastectomy. In 1975, Kushner published Why My? What Every Woman Should Know About Breast Cancer to Save Her Life, but her ideas were initially rejected by medical experts. Over time, however, her research proved that women with the early-stage disease could safely conserve more of their breast tissue.

Kushner was eventually appointed as the first member of the National Cancer Advisory Board by President Jimmy Carter.

The 1980s, and the Pink Ribbon

During the 1980s, AIDS proceeded cancer as the major health crisis commanding national attention. AIDS activists and groups filled national media with their protests in order to lobby for government research money. Their use of symbolism, in the form of a red ribbon, and their demands for increased federal funding, influenced the next wave of breast cancer activism.

The pink ribbon quickly became a symbol of breast cancer awareness, with the efforts by Self Magazine, the cosmetic industry, and the Susan G. Komen foundation in the early 1990s. The concept drew inspiration from breast cancer patient, Charlotte Hayley, who individually distributed thousands of peach-colored ribbons in her community for cancer prevention. When representatives from Estee Lauder and Self Magazine expressed interest in her idea, Hayley turned them down, as she didn’t want the cause to become commercialized. Estee Lauder and Self then changed the color of the ribbon from peach to pink.

The first pink ribbons were handed out at the 1991 Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in New York City, the same year that the National Breast Cancer Coalition was founded. Over 1.5 million pink ribbons were handed out.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Pink Ribbon for awareness of Breast Cancer in Indonesia. Photo by Angiola Harry on Unsplash

Breast Cancer Activism Today

Affecting both women and men, breast cancer is among the most common cancers. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, 1 in 8 women will develop invading breast cancer in her lifetime. As of January 2021, there are more than 3.8 million women with a history of breast cancer in the United States, including women currently being treated, and women who have finished treatment.

These are just two of the startling statistics, and today, activists are pivoting their focus from awareness and early detection towards saving the lives of patients who have progressed to advanced stage IV disease or metastatic breast cancer.

Breast cancer activism has evolved from individual patients and survivors voicing their own experiences, to the formation of community support groups for cancer survivors.

Breast Cancer Half-Marathon, Rome, Italy
Breast Cancer Half-Marathon, Rome, Italy. Photo by Peter Boccia on Unsplash

People have pointed out that, along the way, Charlotte Hayley’s concerns for commercialization of the cause may have been exploited by companies co-opting the pink ribbon to advertise their own agendas. Before all of that, however, this is a movement founded on giving women the courage and ability to speak openly about their bodies, and the agency to decide the preferred course of treatment when faced with a serious illness.

Lily Adami

Content Editor Associate

Having a silly and hard-working personality, Lily loves getting to know people and is passionate about human rights around the world. She is enthusiastic about other cultures, history, and international affairs. Lily has a deep appreciation for traveling, her favorite places include: Amsterdam, Amalfi Coast, and South Africa.

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