A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: More than pink ribbons in Breast Cancer Awareness — disease is too prevalent

Mother, sister, aunt, cousin, best friend, across-the-street neighbor, random branches of the family tree. The disease is so prevalent, most of us don’t need our memories jogged to recall that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Hard to believe it hasn’t been around forever. Breast Cancer Awareness Month, that is, not breast cancer. Documented history of breast cancer dates back to Before the Common Era. Writings produced between 3000 to 2500 B.C.E. attributed to Imhotep, the Egyptian physician and architect, referred to breast cancer. If the affected area was “cool to touch, bulging and spread all over the breast,” it was deemed incurable.

Pink Ribbon by Tessa Ann’s Buttons. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

In ancient Greece, people made votive offerings to Asclepius, god of Medicine, in the shape of a breast, and in the early 400s B.C.E., Hippocrates described the stages of breast cancer. By the first century A.D., Leonides of Alexandria used incision and cautery to treat breast cancer. He also stipulated excising wide margins around removed tumors, a cautionary strategy that continues to be applied today.

As early Christian beliefs took hold in the Middle Ages, faith healing and miracles were the prescribed treatment. Surgery was considered barbaric. With the emergence of Islam, knowledge of Greek medicine was revived through translation of ancient medical texts. Not only did Muslim healers advocate surgery, but they also used a medieval version of chemotherapy, caustic pastes, to render tumors operable.
In addition, Muslim medical men invented surgical instruments designed to remove tumors rapidly and efficiently.
In the Renaissance, scientific and artistic curiosity led to exploration of the mysteries of the human body. Different approaches to surgery emerged, from simple lumpectomies to radical removal of the pectoralis. Whatever the approach, surgery was performed with no anesthesia.

Since then, diagnosis and treatment have improved, but it was not until 1985 that the American Cancer Society and Imperial Chemical Industries’ pharmaceutical division joined together to launch Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Former first lady Betty Ford, a breast cancer survivor, was a spokesperson, a role she assumed when she was diagnosed during her husband’s presidency.

In those days, education was the goal, with an emphasis on early detection. It wasn’t until 1990 that Breast Cancer Awareness Month featured extensive media coverage on a study of mammography that indicated a substantial increase in the number of women who had had at least one mammogram, but also revealing that less than a third of those women followed screening guidelines.

At the time, the words “breast cancer” were uttered in whispers. That began to change in 1989, when Evelyn Lauder, daughter-in-law of the founder of the giant cosmetics company, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Evelyn seized an opportunity to use her money and position to be a strong voice on behalf of women’s health.

In 1992, she teamed up with Alexandra Penney, editor of Self magazine. They created the pink ribbon campaign to raise awareness of October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. One-and-a-half million pink ribbons were distributed that year. Since then, the NFL has become a major supporter of the movement, and nearly all players, coaches, and referees sport the pink ribbon as reminders of the importance of screenings and research to create a breast cancer-free world.

In a 2005 interview, Lauder admitted that, when she first started talking about breast cancer, it was “taboo to discuss it.”

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

“If a woman had it, she didn’t tell anybody except her close friends.”

In a recent article in statnews.com, a publication that provides exclusive analysis of pharma, biotech, and life sciences, Hil Moss, a breast cancer survivor cries out, “Enough pink: We’re doing Breast Cancer Awareness Month all wrong.”

Moss describes pink ribbons plastered everywhere, “on everything from socks to skincare products, all in the name of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.”

She claims that awareness is an example of “disease branding” or “pinkwashing.”

“What began as a strategic, research-driven, and ultimately effective fundraising approach has been co-opted by many in the name of profit.”

We have come a long way since 1985, and new treatments and early diagnosis have made impressive strides. But October is more than pink ribbons, and there is ample testimony of that from the many among us who carry the personal branding that breast cancer can leave behind.
The poet Ted Kooser, another survivor, explains why he needs no reminders.

In his poem “Cancer,” he puts it like this:

I heard a little rattle, saw the doorknob jiggle,
then go still…

He is relieved that nothing is moving outside, where “the sky is white as porcelain.”
Death was gone, at least
for now, it having tried my door to find
the deadbolt held…

Related Posts

Leave a Comment