The History of the Pink Ribbon

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant


n addition to the orange, gold and red foliage colors, you’re likely seeing a lot of pink this time of year as October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Most people realize that a looped pink ribbon represents breast cancer awareness; however, many do not know about the origin of the campaign.

Ancient texts relate that ribbons used in décor have traditionally symbolized longing for those absent during wartime. The 1973 song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” (Irwin Levine, L. Russell Brown), echoes the sentiment of a ribbon symbolizing support and welcome for a loved one at war.

According to, Charlotte Hayley, a breast cancer patient in California, thought the ribbon was appropriate to symbolize the fight against breast cancer. In 1991, she started distributing peach ribbons with a handbill urging more funding for breast cancer. Hayley handed them out at grocery stores and sent them to public figures such as former first ladies and Dear Abby.

Self magazine editor Alexandra Penney adapted the symbol by shifting the color to pink. In 1991, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation established the pink ribbon as a national symbol for breast cancer awareness by distributing one to every participant in the organization’s NYC Race for the Cure.

Though Hayley died at age 91 in 2014, her grassroots effort demonstrated that everyday people could make a difference. That is the mindset behind organizations like Komen, which was founded by Nancy G. Brinker in 1982 to fulfill a promise to her sister, Susan G. Komen as Komen was dying from breast cancer. Brinker said she would do everything she could to eradicate breast cancer. A sister’s promise has grown into an internationally recognized organization.

Andrea Moran, executive director of the Upstate New York affiliate, said that the grassroots beginnings of Komen “is one of our strengths, and that we focus only on breast cancer.

“We also take a 360-degree approach. It’s not just research or patient care or advocacy. Because we’re grassroots, a lot of what we achieve is community-led and integrated into the landscape of small towns and communities.”

The organization is shifting in 2020 and 2021 to consolidate local affiliates under a national organization based in Dallas.

“We’ll be able to engage even if there’s not an affiliate where they live,” Moran said. “We will continue to have a presence in Upstate New York.”

Local grassroot groups

Positively BRCA Support Group also started from grassroots efforts. The organization supports people touched by breast cancer and promotes information and awareness in the community.

Member and co-founder Jill Smith of Cicero was tested for the BRCA gene mutation and opted for prophylactic bilateral mastectomy at age 32. She also had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed, since they were also at elevated risk for cancer. She calls women like herself “previvors,” which means people who choose surgery to prevent cancer after their genetic testing shows an elevated predisposition for cancer.

“Those of us who haven’t had cancer don’t want to take away from people who have had cancer,” Smith said. “There’s a fine line. We’re not survivors. Some people don’t understand it. It’s hard to find where you fit.”

Yet a major surgery like prophylactic bilateral mastectomy is traumatic and generates plenty of questions and internal struggle. Smith described the surgery as painful both physically and emotionally.

“A lot of it was mentally challenging — the journey you’re going on,” Smith said. “It helps to have people who understand what you’re going through.”

Smith said that her husband, Frank, and their four children helped her through her surgeries and she wants to support other women facing a similar ordeal.

Smith said that originally, the group was for women who share the BRCA gene mutation and launched through Hope for Heather, a local ovarian cancer organization. Women with a BRCA mutation have a higher risk of ovarian cancer. Eventually, the group has opened up for anyone with a genetic mutation risk for more kinds of cancer.

Ordinarily, Positively BRCA meets monthly and attends a variety of community events to raise awareness of genetic mutations.

Because of the pandemic, the group of about 40 members meets via Zoom and stay in touch via their Facebook page.