Who Created the Breast Cancer Pink Ribbon and What Does it Mean in 2012?

Now with 10% More Awareness! Photo courtesy of Peter O’Brien

History tells us that many great thinkers have achieved simultaneous yet independent scientific advancements. In 1958, Jack Kilby (Texas Instruments) and Robert Noyce (Fairchild) co-invented the integrated circuit. “Two separate inventors, unaware of each other’s activities, invented almost identical integrated circuits or ICs at nearly the same time,” notes Mary Bellis. “It seems that the integrated circuit was destined to be invented.”

Similarly, in 1992, two (or three depending on your view) people came up with the Breast Cancer Awareness Ribbon on opposite ends of the county. In Simi Valley, CA, Charlotte Haley, a 68-year-old housewife, started what the LA Times termed  “a personal, simple effort to increase the collective consciousness about breast cancer by getting people to wear small peach-colored ribbons.” Haley’s maternal grandmother died of metastatic breast cancer and her sister and daughter had breast cancer.

Haley wondered why breast cancer remained incurable. She felt breast cancer had been put on the back burner and and dismissed as a woman’s  disease. But as Times reporter Kathleen Hendrix noted “[Haley] is no rabble-rouser and frequently qualifies what may sound like a complaint with the protestation, ‘I’m not criticizing.'”

Haley, probably inspired in part by the red ribbons worn for AIDS awareness that were first seen in 1991, created her peach ribbons. She asked people to send her a SASE–each envelope was returned with five ribbons attached to cards that read: “National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 Billion. Only 5% goes for cancer prevention. Help us to wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.”  She didn’t want to start a foundation or non-profit–if people offered her donations, she declined, instead urging them to emulate her work.

Meanwhile, across the country, Self magazine’s Alexandra Penney was looking for a way to pay tribute to Phyllis Starr Wilson, the publication’s founding editor of who died from metastatic breast cancer at age 60 in 1988. In October 1991, Self published its first Breast Cancer Awareness issue—Evelyn Lauder, Estée Lauder senior corporate vice president and a breast cancer survivor was the guest editor.  In 1992, as Penney planned the magazine’s second Breast Cancer Awareness issue, she also took inspiration from the AIDS effort. “I was passionate about finding a symbol that would be equally influential and conspicuous as the red ribbon,” she writes in her 2010 memoir.

One of Penney’s colleague’s Nancy Smith, read about Charlotte’s Haley’s effort in Liz Smith’s syndicated column.  Recalls Penney [“I said, ] ‘Let’s get her on the phone right away and tell her we want to cooperate with her and make the ribbon into a national symbol. We have the power of over two million smart and caring readers who will get behind this.’ But the peach ribbon lady wasn’t interested in our entreaties.”

In 1997, Penney told  Sandy M. Fernandez  a slightly different story.  This version suggests a Kilby/Noyce-like independent, yet parallel, epiphany:

Penney had a flash of inspiration—she would create a ribbon, and enlist the cosmetics giant to distribute it in New York City stores. Evelyn Lauder went her one better: She promised to put the ribbon on cosmetics counters across the country.

Penney recalls the birth of the ribbon now from her office at Ziff-Davis. “You know how it is when things are in the air,” Penney says.

“A week later Liz Smith wrote about a woman who was already doing a peach-colored ribbon for breast cancer.” The woman was 68-year-old Charlotte Haley, the granddaughter, sister, and mother of women who had battled breast cancer. Her peach-colored loops were handmade in her dining room. Each set of five came with a card saying: “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 strictly grassroots, handing the cards out at the local supermarket and writing prominent women, everyone from former First Ladies to Dear Abby. Her message spread by word of mouth. By the time Liz Smith printed her phone number, Haley had distributed thousands.

Then Self magazine called.

“We said, ‘We want to go in with you on this, we’ll give you national attention, there’s nothing in it for us,” Penney says. Even five years later, her voice still sounds startled by Haley’s answer. “She wanted nothing to do with us. Said we were too commercial.”

At the end of September 1992, Liz Smith printed a follow-up to Haley’s story. She reported that Estee Lauder had experienced “problems” trying to work with Haley, and quoted the activist claiming that Self had asked her to relinquish the concept of the ribbon. “We didn’t want to crowd her,” Penney says. “But we really wanted to do a ribbon. We asked our lawyers and they said, ‘ Come up with another color.”

They chose pink.

In Penney’s 2010 memoir, she credits Lauder as well the magazine’s publisher: “Evelyn is the one who made the pink ribbon for breast cancer a breast cancer awareness a global symbol. She is responsible for saving the lives of  thousands and thousands of women…Without [publisher S.I. Newhouse] there would be no pink ribbon and he deserves credit as well. The impact and effectiveness of the pink ribbon was something that was achieved only through the activists and the power of an established publication with millions of intelligent readers.”

Where Are They Now?

Evelyn Lauder died in 2011 from nonhereditary ovarian cancer. In 1993, Lauder established  The Breast Cancer Research Foundation to support clinical and genetic research on breast cancer.  According to BCRF: Currently, 90 cents of every dollar donated to The Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) goes to directly to research and awareness programs. The Foundation is supporting over 185 researchers throughout 13 countries.

Alexandra Penney, author of the 1980s bestseller  “How to Make Love to a Man,” edited Self from  August 1989 to September 1995. She left her editorial job to become a full-time artist, photographing blow up sex dolls.  She invested her life savings with Bernard Madoff. In 2008, Penney began grappling with her fears of being a bag lady as chronicled in three blogs for the The Daily Beast:

I began to think about my options: I’d have to sell the cottage in West Palm Beach immediately. I’d need to lay off Yolanda. I could cancel the newspaper subscriptions and read everything online. I only needed a cell phone. I’d have to stop taking taxis. And who could highlight my hair for almost no money? And how hard was it to give yourself a really good pedicure?

I’d love to know how Charlotte Haley, her husband Bob or daughter Nancy felt about what happened to Charlotte’s simple, grassroots campaign over the past two decades. I couldn’t find any recent interviews or information. In 1992, the LA Times asked Haley what her goal was. “What it says on the card–more research,” she said. “I guess the word is a cure.”

The Last Word…

Two decades ago, two (maybe three) people came up with a classy idea: pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness. One of them, Charlotte Haley, didn’t make any money from her idea and seems to have remained largely anonymous. As for Evelyn Lauder, de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est. Plus she has actually done quite a lot via The Breast Cancer Research Foundation. (The BCRF doesn’t have phone solicitors–beware of similarly named outfits banking on people’s confusion.)

I’d love to know what Alexandra Penney thinks of the pink ribbon backlash of recent years, but I suspect she’s got bigger issues on her mind.

From her blogs, Penney comes off as a combination of Lovey Howell crossed with Scarlett O’Hara after Sherman marched through Georgia. Weeks after the Madoff scandal broke, Penney marveled at taking the subway for the first time in 30 years.  Then, en route to her Florida property, she stayed at a Hampton Inn for the first time: “It’s my new Ritz-Carlton!,” she enthused. ” The room is warm and comfy and inviting, with fluffy white duvet covers. There’s even a board with a pen handily tucked into a slot and you can rest a book or laptop on it.”

Self magazine’ s October 2012 Breast Cancer Awareness issue is probably locked up at this point. I would guess that the magazine probably does make quite a bit of money under the guise of creating awareness and doing good for people with breast cancer. I’d love to know if the magazine contributes all or some of the advertising profits from this issue to The Breast Cancer Research Foundation or some other worthy group.

In a video tribute to Evelyn Lauder and Self’s role in creating the Pink Ribbon, current editor in chief Lucy Danziger noted that early stage breast cancer is 98%  “treatable to a cure.” She has nothing to say about metastatic breast cancer. At the end of the video, she invites viewers to take inspiration from Lauder. “What difference do YOU want to make?” she asks.

Well, as one of 150,000 U.S. people currently living with metastatic breast cancer, I want people to know that Oct. 13 is National Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness  Day. In the U.S., incidence of stage IV breast cancer—the cancer that is lethal—has stayed the same over the past 20 years; screening and improved treatment has not changed this.

I am not among the millions of people who subscribe to Self. If I were, I would rip out every page of breast cancer related advertising and return it to editor in chief Lucy Danziger and tell her I support groups that support research. I would ask her to write about people with metastatic breast cancer and help readers understand why it is different from early stage breast cancer. I would ask her to do an article on recurrence. I would ask her if she thinks we have enough awareness.

I will return my pink ribbon in protest.

That is the difference I will make.


Steady On,





P.S. If anyone else wants to send their ribbons back, here is the address:


Lucy Danziger

Editor in Chief

SELF Magazine

4 Times Square

New York, NY 10036

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14 thoughts on “Who Created the Breast Cancer Pink Ribbon and What Does it Mean in 2012?

  1. Hmm….98% curable….interesting, I have always been told that there IS no cure for Breast Cancer, and there certainly isn’t a cure for metastatic breast cancer. The world is full of women who “caught it early” and yet found out later that they now had cancer in a distant spot, whether bone, liver, brain, lung….

    I have been fighting cancer since 1994 when I was struck by cancer as a young mother, then 3 1/2 years later, discovered it had gone into my bone. Since 1998, I have had metastatic breast cancer. I am still alive, I am still fighting, although I am now undergoing a second chemotherapy to try to stop the recurrence which happened in 2010.

    Something which makes me really sad is that so few people understand those of us who have been diagnosed as “Stage IV”, or “late stage” or having metatstatic breast cancer MBC) –or metastatic cancer in general. People are suprised I am not dead. Others don’t understand that death stares me in the face every day, and then others are convinced I am not currently going through chemo because “you finished that” (yes, cancer can change and render the treatment void), or that because I have hair, I have to be cancer free. NOT.

    Thank you for reminding people about October 13 as metastatic breast cancer awareness day. It is an irony to me as my wedding anniversary is also October 13.

    I’m with you….I am aware. Others are aware of finding it early, but few are aware of recurrences, and what it means when it recurs in an area beyond the breast. Sometimes I am sick of the Pink Tide….only because so little is done to look at those of us with MBC.

    Thank you so much for posting this…and returning your ribbon.

    • katherinembc says:

      Thanks for reading Lisa. I went back and watched the video. It’s a little garbled but Danziger says something like early stage breast cancer is “treatable to a cure.” I think she may mean there is a 98% survival rate. I think the problem with declaring someone with early stage breast cancer “cured” is that can’t definitely be said until the person dies of something else….

  2. Great piece. I think the ironic “strawberry flavored pretzels” say it all. Sugar and preservatives fuel cancer no matter what color they are….but eat them in the name of “cancer research.”

    The voice is getting louder each year: we want PREVENTION as well as STAGE IV TREATMENT! But it’s not loud enough for everyone to hear.

    How many millions of dollars will be spent “in the name of breast cancer research” only to have it pissed away by mega “non-profits” that can’t manage their funds? I don’t see how they can claim any kind of advancement when stage IV cancer rates haven’t moved at all, and breast cancer overall incidence is actually on the rise (1 in 20 in 1960, less than 1 in 8 today)

    With movies like “Pink Ribbons Inc” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2035599/) shedding some light on the true and dismal statistics may help, but when there are pharmaceutical companies involved, you can bet things won’t change much.

  3. katherinembc says:

    Thanks for reading. I can’t suggest eating tons of it, but sugar gets a bad rap. Per the Mayo Clinic: Myth: People with cancer shouldn’t eat sugar, since it can cause cancer to grow faster.

    Fact: Sugar doesn’t make cancer grow faster. All cells, including cancer cells, depend on blood sugar (glucose) for energy. But giving more sugar to cancer cells doesn’t speed their growth. Likewise, depriving cancer cells of sugar doesn’t slow their growth.

    This misconception may be based in part on a misunderstanding of positron emission tomography (PET) scans, which use a small amount of radioactive tracer — typically a form of glucose. All tissues in your body absorb some of this tracer, but tissues that are using more energy — including cancer cells — absorb greater amounts. For this reason, some people have concluded that cancer cells grow faster on sugar. But this isn’t true.
    Source: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cancer-causes/CA00085/NSECTIONGROUP=2

  4. Thank you for the history. I love your idea about sending the advertising back. Last year I became furious when an airline painted a plane pink and sold pink lemon aid. Why didn’t they just donate the money it cost to paint the plane?

  5. Very informative post, Katherine. I LOVE the “Where are they now” perspective you are highlighting here. There was a time when the ribbon meant something more to those “intelligent readers” than marketing and feel good awareness. I wonder how long it took before SELF Magazine realized the profit potential of the pink ribbon and chose to willingly ignore the ribbon’s tribute to its founding editor. The pink ribbon (now with 10% more awareness!) functions as a mere logo for the breast cancer brand. There seems to be no shortage of individuals, organizations, and corporations who are willing to cash in, but I’m with you on giving the ribbon back. There may well be a million others who are ready to do the same, so we can get back to the business at hand.

  6. Yvonne Coyle says:

    Charlotte Haley is in Pink Ribbons inc. the movie

  7. BillP says:

    I had heard that Charlotte Haley’s refusal to work with others also had to do with their reliance on products with possible carcinogens. Although, I have been able to find no record of that.

  8. carey says:

    I really, really wish Evelyn Lauder had been able to make an even tiny gesture that would have raised the profile of ovarian cancer.

  9. Elaine says:

    In November 2006 I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. It was my first experience w cancer, no family history. Not only did I need to understand and cope with a cancer diagnosis but at the same time cope and come to grips with an advanced, terminal disease. While trying to work, send my oldest off the college, get the youngest ready, trying to help children and husband adjust and understand the illness and changes that would be coming without causing more worry/concern than necessary; all the while dealing w personal panic, depression, anxiety. I wonder how many people remember that in addition to every thing that comes w a cancer diagnosis, life still continues (ie cars need repair, late nights to finish work or school projects, homesick college kids, furnances or water heaters need to be repaired or replaced, spouses announce infidelities and so on)

    I wish I had found this earlier, don’t know if anyone is still watching or reading or writing but… I have felt so alone, not understood, and certainly not one of the poster girls. I have listened to well meaning, but not well informed, people explain how I can fight this; how if I am positive, everything will be ok; since I never had chemo (hormonal therapy and some surgey only) that I don’t really have cancer: and as someone mentioned earlier, I have hair, I must be ok then. Oh yes, one of the favorites is the but we all die, we might get hit by a bus today. Some days it even feels like I am not dying fast enough for some people – really?

    • katherinembc says:

      Hi Elaine, you are most certainly NOT alone! MBCN just held its annual conference–and there were hundreds of people with MBC. We did talk about the challege of living with this disease, pls. keep an eye on MBCN.org for Dr. Don Dizon’s presentation. Hang in there and thanks for reading.

  10. […] When I was 15, my mom was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. This was in 1981 so there was no Internet and very little information or support for patients. I remember the American Cancer Society volunteer came to our house with a foob after my mom’s mastectomy. But the Komen organization wasn’t launched until 1982, so this was about a decade before Breast Cancer Awareness Month achieved its massive place in the public consciousness, thanks largely to SELF magazine. […]

  11. […] Who Created the Breast Cancer Pink Ribbon and What Does it Mean in 2012? […]

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