October, breast cancer and pink have become synonymous

October 11, 2011 

One year, after writing an article about the power of pink, I received an email from a woman who was quite upset with me. Her exact words were: you “pink people” think you are the only ones with cancer.

I of course was intrigued and wrote back to her. I thanked her for taking the time to write and told her I would love to talk with her. She called me and we chatted for quite awhile.

She shared with me how she had been battling colon cancer for a couple of years. She shared how she felt that the only people that seemed to get any attention were the “pink people.” She asked me: So when was the last time you went to a race for colon cancer, or wore a shirt that talked about fighting colon cancer or had a cosmetic company produce a special lipstick to support colon cancer?

The only publicity that she could talk about was the time a reporter had the video of her colonoscopy broadcast on a news show. And that was to spread the word about how important the test was in the early detection of colon cancer, not about fighting it. Her name was Betty.

I loved Betty’s spirit from the beginning. I explained to her that the cancer support group that I moderate here at Manatee Memorial Hospital is purposely called: Women Living with Cancer. I wanted all women with cancer to know that they were welcome and that we would love to have her as part of the group. Cancer is colorless.

I went on to explain to her the history behind the “pink.” It started with the story of a man coming home from prison looking out the window of a bus. He was looking to see if his wife put a yellow ribbon on a tree to welcome him home. His story, in 1973, became the basis of the song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.”

In 1979, Penny Laingen, wife of a hostage who’d been taken in Iran, was inspired by the song to tie a yellow ribbon around a tree. Soon the whole country was tying yellow ribbons around trees in solidarity with the hostages.

Eleven years later, 1990, AIDS activists decided to use the concept of a red ribbon to increase awareness of that disease. The debut for the red ribbon was worn by Jeremy Irons to the Tony Awards. He made a passionate plea for increased spending on research and the fast tracking of drugs that could help cure the disease. The color of a ribbon as a symbol of causes was born.

The Susan B. Komen organization had been handing out pink visors to cancer survivors at their races. In 1991, after witnessing how powerful the red ribbon had been for AIDS, they gave out pink ribbons at their New York City race for the cure. Soon other companies joined the pink band wagon.

It worked. Millions were raised for breast cancer research. Pink, which symbolizes softness and femininity, now also represented a powerful fight against a potentially deadly disease.

“Pink people” want the same for all cancer patients. I told her that blue is the symbol for awareness of colon cancer.

I told Betty that when she came to the cancer support group I would be wearing blue for her.

Betty came to our group. She was a dynamic presence and loved by everyone. She came to understand as we all do that cancer really is colorless. She became involved in breast cancer events and she wore pink.

When she died from colon cancer we all went to her funeral. We wore blue.

Katie Powers, R.N., is a board-certified lactation consultant and perinatal educator at Manatee Memorial Hospital’s Family BirthPlace. Her column appears every other week in Health. Contact her at katie.powers@mmhhs.com.

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