Confessions of a Recovering Pink Addict

Linda “Kristi” Rickman has 10 years experience in higher education in various areas of student affairs. Following her mother’s first diagnosis with breast cancer in 1996 Kristi became a pink ribbon addict. Then a second diagnosis years later led her to immerse herself further into pink ribbon culture. Kristi’s viewpoint of the pink ribbon began to shift in October 2011 after she attended a session by Dr. Gayle Sulik on “Pink Ribbon Blues.” Since the pink ribbon was so intertwined in her personal life, it was very challenging to hear about its negative consequences at first. But she continued to look into the matter and read the “fine print” behind pink ribbon campaigns. Kristi now strives to educate others about how to avoid being “pinked” by the ribbon and instead make more informed decisions.

My mother was first diagnosed with Breast Cancer in 1996. She had a mastectomy and is still alive today. I won’t say “alive and well,” because after surviving two bouts with breast cancer her physical body declined.

My mother’s first medical procedure involved a total mastectomy of her right breast and removal of seven lymph nodes under her arm. Since her cancer was estrogen receptor positive, she took the drug tamoxifen for 5 years. About 10 years my mother had a recurrence of breast cancer in the small portion of the breast tissue that remained. This time around she had chemotherapy and radiation. Today there is no evidence of disease. Yet my mother still deals with the ongoing side effects of her various treatments. Her hair is still very thin, and her physical body has continued to decline.

My mother’s diagnosis with breast cancer shook my non-communicative family to its core. My mother always had a hard time verbalizing her feelings, so she compensated by “doing” things for other people. After having her right breast and the majority of lymph nodes beneath her right arm removed, it was nearly impossible for her to keep up her usual pace and she even had to switch careers. She also elected to have surgery that her used stomach tissue to construct a new right breast. This was a year-long process that involved a lot of pain and follow-up procedures.

After my mother’s recovery from surgery in April 1996 everyone appeared to move on with their lives even though my mom continued to suffer, worry, and deal with the ongoing effects of the various treatments she continued to endure. I wanted my mother to know, somehow, that I understood. And that I was there for her. The pink ribbon, even though it was less commonplace in the 1990′s compared to today, quickly became the tie that bonded us together. I had an intense yearning to find pink-ribboned things to let my mother know she was always on my mind and that she was not alone.

Kristi and her mother

The pink ribbon became a way for my mother and I to show our emotional connection, but it was also a conduit of communication. We didn’t need words. We could participate in the growing pink ribbon culture. We could race for the cure, donate money, and buy up as much pink as we could find. We even exchanged little pink ribbon pins. I gave her a gold pink ribbon. The pin she gave me had a dangling pearl as a reminder do self-exams (see picture). For all those years I bought almost anything I saw with a pink ribbon. I became a pink addict!

The pink ribbon meant so much to me, and my mom, that when I first started learning about the industry behind it I was very guarded and resistant. As I read more and more, I gradually faced the facts. The pink ribbon had wrapped around my heart and my pocketbook. My emotional attachment to my mother, very real and honest, fell victim to the merchandising tactics of corporations and exploitive organizations.

  • Women lose their breast(s) and too often their lives while being bombarded with trendy references to saving their “boobies” and “ta-tas.” Even young kids wear plastic bracelets etched, “I Love Boobies.” Have we lost sight of the horribleness of breast cancer? My mother’s chest is forever scarred. Does anyone care how she feels? Or how I feel? We (women) are not our boobies, but when boobies are flashed all around it is a constant superficial reminder of women’s sexual objectification, and that being boob-less is not sexy.
  • The strong emphasis on breasts might even encourage reconstructive surgeries when they are risky. I know five women who had breast reconstruction. Some had the abdominal flap reconstruction like my mother did, which used their stomach tissue to reconstruct a breast mound. The others had breast implants, which required first having an expander inserted beneath the chest muscle to stretch it out to make room. Two of my friends’ bodies rejected the implant which delayed their healing. If these women hadn’t been overwhelmed with the message that they wouldn’t be real women without their boobies, would they have made different choices? When asked recently, two of the women confirmed they would indeed go through it again. But I don’t find this surprising given the sexualized imagery even within breast cancer awareness campaigns and the surplus of advertisements from plastic surgeons. Reconstruction is a personal choice, but not choosing reconstructive surgeries should be equally valid.
  • I used to assume that pink ribbon products always further breast cancer research. I was wrong. There is no accounting for how much money is raised, where it goes, or what it accomplishes. Some companies make pink products but give NO MONEY at all to research or even to the Cause. Some organizations emphasize breast cancer research in their public relations materials but only spend a fraction of their revenues on it. I religiously donated money to Susan G. Komen for the Cure thinking I was helping to fund research. I stopped after I realized that most of the money is spent on “education” and not so much on “finding a cure.”

Now that I see what’s behind all the pink I have officially cut the ribbon. No more. I will never buy anything “just because it’s pink” again. I will not contribute to campaigns that sexually objectify women or trivialize their disease. I will not support companies that just use the ribbon for financial gain and/or do not give a significant portion of proceeds toward breast cancer research. I will do my homework, support my mother, and support the breast cancer Cause in ways that will make a real impact.

It will take some time for me to recover fully from my pink addiction. I already grieve the loss of this little pink thing my mother and I relied on for so long. And while I will continue to cherish my pink pin and its dangling pearl (as a reminder of the bond I share with my mother and the cancer and treatments that ravaged her body), we will both have to figure out how stop relying on a symbol for emotional connection. We will have to learn how to use our words.

I’m a more educated woman than I was 16 years ago. I’ve been exposed to information I wasn’t comfortable with at first, which fundamentally changed how I interact with one of the most important people in my life. My mother. But after I realized that the pink ribbon had a misleading and devastating backstory, I welled up with intense emotion. I wanted to change my pink habits, and I felt compelled to sit down and write my story.

I hope we will all learn what is really behind “the pink.” To pause before making blind purchases. To look deeper and read labels, including the fine print about fundraisers and the details about how organizations spend their money. If you do your homework you may be surprised at how little goes to breast cancer research. And let’s stop making this a “boob” epidemic and start boycotting those that market unnecessary and inappropriate merchandise. Let’s take the focus off of the boobs and shift it back to finding a cure for breast cancer and helping people who need it. I hope my story will motivate you to a take a step back and think before you “pink.” I do. Now.

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12 comments to Confessions of a Recovering Pink Addict

  • Hats off to you, Linda, for being willing to do the research, evaluating what you learned with integrity, taking a new position even though it went against what you had previously supported AND then sharing your new position with the world. Hearing from people like you is incredily inspiring to those of us who work so hard to get people to carefully evaluate movements and organizations prior to choosing what and whom to support as opposed to blindly following the flashiest movement. My heartfelt thanks for this blog.

  • Traci Self

    Brought tears to my eyes!! Love you and your beautiful mom!!

  • Kudos to you for writing this article. Pink has taken a very different turn in my life since my mom was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. THANK YOU for writing about this!

  • Norma Oliver

    Last year I was seriously questioning anything pink. This year I’ve been seriously DISGUSTED with anything pink. So much so that my fb profile pics portrays a pic asking folks to think before they pink etc. This WHOLE month I’ve liked many fb pages with like thinking and I’ve re-posted and shared every article along these lines.

    My sister in law unfriended me over it even. I still trudged ahead, sharing all I could to get the work out the pink stinks and to encourage others to NOT be pinkwashed.

    This however is one of the best things I’ve read on the topic and will share this several times over. Thank you for telling it like it is. I don’t have a personal story to tell. My grandma had breast cancer back in the 20′s and they did a radical mastectomy and removed a bunch of lymph nodes. She was in her twenties. Don’t know what other treatments they did back then but she lived well into her 80′s and did not die from cancer.

    With that knowledge I was concerned and even had a few mammograms but have since decided no thanks. I’d rather see more about prevention that promoting products and services that in the long run that can actually be detrimental to health.

    Anyway, thanks for this excellent reality check of what the pink is all about.

    Norma O.

  • Linda,
    Thank you for sharing how your ideas about pink and pink ribbons have evolved over time. You certainly aren’t alone there. “The pink ribbon had wrapped around my heart and my pocketbook,” I think that statement says an awful lot. There is so much emotion that has been taken advantage of by so many isn’t there? Good for you for evaluating, evolving and now sharing. Thanks for writing this article.

  • For those interested in more information along this line, I highly recommend http://www.bcaction.org … especially their “Think Before You Pink” effort. And for those looking for a place to donate to metastatic/stage IV breast cancer (MBC) research, I invite you to check out METAvivor Research and Support, where 100% of every donation goes into MBC research grants. Recipients of METAvivor’s research grants are currently being profiled in a six-part series on the METAvivor Blog at http://www.metavivor-blog.com/

  • Although PINK is not as overwhelming here in the UK as in the US it is still used to mask the real issues with something that is socially acceptable and pretty. Pink is actually my favourite colour, but mix it with a ribbon and a cause and I feel nausea coming on. Sadly so many causes have come to be more about Image, Branding, PR, Marketing, Selling Product and all those other soul-less things that are the lifeblood of big corporations in a free market. Research funding has nothing to do with big corporations, unless they want to silently contribute as millions of ordinary people do with no anticipation of any kudos other than that their £ or $ might be the one that makes the difference and funds a breakthrough.

    Years ago I used to buy charity Christmas cards until I realised that about 10p of the £5 cost was going to the charity. Now I just put £1 in a collection tin every now and then for a cause that I wish to support and buy cheap Christmas cards in the January sales.

    The money I want to give is not to support a CEO, or their plastic surgeon, it is to fund the time of a scientist to work on a project to help find a cure/breakthrough/put food actually into the mouth of a starving person in ‘x’ or provide shelter after an earth quake or tsunami, or hurricane. It is not to pay ‘out of pocket expenses’ on some jolly to somewhere nice. Every group has essential expenses, and I don’t even begrudge paying those, but my money is not to buy a well-paid person their lunch, which they would have to do on an ordinary day. Charity begins at home, and not in the boardroom and too many organisations for-profit and non-profit have forgotten that!

    Spread the word Linda there are thousands cheering you on!

  • Maureen

    Wow, that was quite moving. Thank you for sharing your story, and your mother’s.

  • Thanks for this great post Linda and for adding it to your collection Gayle. I hang on to a few pink ribbon things I have gotten from others, or that remind me of someone in particular (like my two sisters who are BC survivors along with me), but I won’t be adding anything to my collection anymore either. I appreciate your discussion of the overemphasis on breasts. I am a breast-less woman now, but still very much a woman, wife, and mother.
    Thanks again!

  • Kristi

    @CJ Thank you! It was definitely a year long emotional and mental battle with myself to where I slowly let my guard down so that I could allow myself to see this reality.
    I am truly grateful for Gayle Sulik’s work she has done because if it was not for her professionalism and genuineness to expose these truths behind the pink ribbon culture I would still be lost in the pink and probably would have purchased several pink things this October. Her research and passion truly inspired me to write and share my own story. I do hope my story is able to shed light for those, like myself, who have been so emotionally blinded and hypnotized by the pink ribbon culture because of their own heartfelt experiences with this disease. I am so thankful that I did.

    @Traci, thank you

    @Jessica, So sorry to hear about your mother. I can only imagine what you and your family are experiencing…my heart goes out to you and your family.

    @Norma, it sounds like you and I are on the same page…last year and now. Last year I was more cautious, observant and reserved in relation to anything about the pink ribbon. This year I am outright disgusted at how low the corporations have stooped just to sell their product. I have torn down the walls, and came out with passion!
    I too thought about “rethink before you pink” as a t-shirt idea. I wanted to design something that would not be offensive to those who are still in the pink trance, but enough to grab their attention to spark a genuine conversation. Keep trudging on Norma!

    @Nancy, I appreciate your insight and feedback. Many families emotions have definitely been taken advantage of and unfortunately, it will continue for a while. I hope that my story, and others stories, will spread and enlighten all who have been so suavely invaded by the pink ribbon.

    @Victoria, I admire your wisdom. I continue to donate to charities but I definitely do my research now. Sorry your favorite color has been hijacked by so many corporations just looking to profit from vulnerable families. Stay away from the souvenir shops around October. I was on vacation and this souvenir shop had an entire section of their store (the entire back wall and about 10 feet on both sides) dedicated to breast cancer awareness. The messages on the t-shirts left me nauseous. That was truly my pivotal moment.

    @Maureen, Thank you for the feedback. I appreciate your genuine reaction to my story.
    You all definitely confirmed that sharing my story was appropriate and needed. Thank you all for taking the time to share with me and others here!

  • Many thanks to Kristi for sharing her insights and reflections, as well as a very personal transformation. I hope we’ll be hearing more from her on PRB! — Gayle Sulik

  • Just want to say DITTO!!! I appreciate your perspective on this issue as I have shared the same sentiment for sometime. I am literally disgusted at how breast cancer has become some marketing phenomenon over the last decade or so. And, this was a problem for me even before my family was affected by cancer. I understand people who want to buy “pink” for the simple purpose of showing they support something or to bring awareness to an issue. But, we already know breast cancer is an issue. We already know it needs a cure. So, really, what about buying a pink blender will really make a difference at the end of the day?

    I will admit, it is so easy to get caught up in the craze. And, everyone buying pink is just doing it because they want to support the cause, and I get that. But, I guess so many just don’t understand that in most cases it really is not helping to find a cure, or directly supporting a breast cancer patient. We must educate society on this issue. This is a great article to start with!

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“Pink Ribbon Blues,” Book

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Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer. The New York Times Magazine.

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