The first disease to get an awareness ribbon was AIDS. Jeremy Irons famously wore one at the 1991 Tony awards, a handmade gift from a group called Visual AIDS. They were, in turn, inspired by yellow ribbons for soldiers.
In those early days, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi described the red ribbon’s ugliness as its strength: “It ruins whatever you’re wearing, it doesn’t work compositionally, it’s the wrong color, it throws your hair off, and who cares, because you have human feelings and you’re showing them. That’s the sacrifice: taking away your individuality in honor of those who have died.”
But the AIDS ribbon campaign was successful because it was unobjectionable, even fashionable. A previous year’s “Silence = Death” button hadn’t gone over nearly so well: Act Up LA made a thousand, and 997 were unworn at the end of the night. One of the original ribbon makers explained to the New York Times that the AIDS ribbon was designed to be as ambiguous as people wanted it to be: “We wanted … something that could mean ‘I hate this Government’ or just ‘I care about people with AIDS.’ ”
Other colors and causes followed suit, and the New York Times declared 1992 the Year of the Ribbon. Self Magazine and Estee Lauder put 1.5 million pink ribbons on cosmetics counters across the country that year. Then a shift to pink products began with Cone Communications, a PR firm hired by Avon. Their research showed that consumers would switch brands for the sake of supporting a cause, so Carol Cone helped Avon design and sell a pink ribbon lapel pin. Lauder and Komen followed with their own products. Unlike AIDS, breast cancer was uncontroversial. Cone summed it up in a 1998 interview: “Companies want to support breast cancer. Breast cancer is safe.”
In the pink
If you’re already heathy, getting a mammogram isn’t necessarily in your own best interests, as Christie Aschwanden explains here. Many of the tumors caught by screening are ones that would never have been a problem, and yet the women with positive tests end up going through a grueling and expensive series of treatments. Three women are overdiagnosed for every life saved.
Those three have paid a steep price for their awareness. Was it worthwhile? Perhaps—and that’s why screening should be a personal decision and not a mandate.
As Breast Cancer Awareness Month draws to a close, I’d like to focus on cancers where awareness can make a big difference in early detection. The National Cancer Institute names three, besides breast cancer.
Cervical cancer: Annual pap smears are an outdated practice. Current guidelines in the US are a pap test every three years for young women; HPV tests can be used, too. And there’s more good news: there is a vaccine against the strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer.
Lung cancer: Spiral CT scans can save heavy smokers’ lives; other methods don’t have the numbers behind them yet.
Colorectal cancer: Four different tests can save lives, prompting the Colon Cancer Alliance to piggyback on the pink frenzy of October with a cheeky (ha!) campaign that says “Screen this too!”