No matter where you go—from a football game to a four-star restaurant—if you ask, you’ll find plenty of people who’ve been touched by breast cancer. Whether it’s a mother, aunt, friend of a friend, or down-the-street neighbor, everyone knows someone who has or has had the disease. The “one in eight” affects us all.

Who is Susan G. Komen?

Hers is the name most often associated with Breast Cancer Awareness. You’ve seen it everywhere: during races, on ribbons, and connected with many other breast cancer awareness activities. But do you know who Susan Komen is? She’s not a billionaire philanthropist, nor a celebrity on a mission. Susan was a small-town homecoming queen who died of breast cancer in 1982.

Susan’s story is no more or no less tragic than other women who have had their lives cut short by breast cancer. She grew up in a small Illinois town, where she lived a happy and normal life with a loving family. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in the mid-1970s at the age of 33, there weren’t any pink ribbons or races for a cure. Susan and her family didn’t know much about the disease or how to fight it. They got some bad advice from doctors and made uninformed early decisions about treatment options. By the time Susan got to the capable experts of the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, her cancer had reached stage IV and metastasized to other organs. After fighting breast cancer for three years, she finally lost the battle.

As Susan was dying, her sister Nancy Brinker made a promise. Nancy promised Susan that she would do whatever she could to end breast cancer forever. Family members often make promises to loved ones who are suffering from terminal illness. But what makes this promise special is that Nancy turned that pledge into a billion-dollar global breast cancer movement, “Susan G. Komen for the Cure.”

History of the Pink Ribbon

The history behind the pink ribbon is a little convoluted and controversial. To truly appreciate its growth into the public psyche, you have to understand the evolution of ribbon symbolism. The ribbon, as a symbol of courage or support, has its origin in the 19th century, when wives wore yellow ribbons as a sign of devotion to their husbands serving in the military. This symbolism was noted in songs—“Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree”—and movies—She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

In the 20th century, the yellow ribbon became widely used as a reminder of an absent loved on in the military, in jail, or missing. For example, a wife of a hostage taken in Iran tied yellow ribbons in her yard until he returned home safely. Her touching gesture sparked the movement connecting a cause to a ribbon. Next up, came the red ribbons worn to signify AIDS awareness. In 1991, participants and breast cancer survivors in the Komen New York City Race for the Cure received pink ribbons. (From its inception, the Komen movement used the color pink in its logo and in other promotions.)

The big leap for the pink ribbon came when Self Magazine, working with Estée Lauder cosmetics, came up with the idea to distribute awareness ribbons across the country as part of the magazine’s second annual breast cancer awareness month in 1992.

As Self’s editor-in-chief was planning this campaign, another person was working on a grassroots drive to promote breast cancer awareness by handing out peach colored ribbons, all put together by herself from her home. Self wanted to work with this activist and advance the cause together. But it didn’t happen—the activist, Charlotte Haley, thought that working with Self and Estée Lauder was too commercial for her cause. So to avoid conflict, Self and Estée Lauder chose to make their ribbon pink and move forward with the national promotion. Over 1.5 million pink ribbons were handed out in 1992 by Estée Lauder and Self, and since then, the color pink has remained linked to breast cancer awareness.

While the “running ribbon” associated with the Susan G. Komen for the CureÒ can only be used by them, all generic pink ribbons can used by anyone.

Why October?

In 1984, a group comprising national public service organizations, professional medical associations, and government agencies worked together to form the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM), an organization “that promotes breast cancer awareness, shares information on the disease, and provides greater access to screening services.” According to a representative from NBCAM, one of the reasons the group chose October was because the first Race for the Cure, hosted by one of their founding organizations, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, was held in October of the previous year. Though it is associated with October, NBCAM is a year-round resource for the general public and those touched by breast cancer. Editor’s note: The group is part of the AstraZeneca Healthcare Foundation. AstraZeneca manufactures pharmaceuticals for breast cancer treatment.

Where Does All the Money Go?

Pink ribbon promotions show up everywhere—on pencils and laptops, cosmetics and candy. Some today see this as a curse, not a help to the cause. Many people and organizations thing the breast cancer awareness movement has become too commercialized, with too little money actually going towards breast cancer research, programs, or services. Think Before You Pink is a project of the Breast Cancer Action, a watchdog group of the breast cancer movement, that offers tips and questions to ask before you buy a product with a pink ribbon on it.

More Information on Breast Cancer:

  • Breast Cancer Trends in 2010
  • Breast Cancer Screenings: A Survivor's Perspective
  • Slideshow: Telltale Signs of Breast Cancer
  • Breast Cancer Learning Center