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Activists urge: ‘think before you pink’

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This October, many store shelves are looking pretty in pink for Breast Cancer Awareness month as companies slap pink ribbons onto their products and pledge profits in the name of breast cancer awareness, prevention and the ever-anticipated cure. But one San Francisco-based organization says the most effective form of activism will not come from any of your purchases.

“Truly, if we could shop to cure breast cancer, there would be no more breast cancer,” said Rebecca Farmer of Breast Cancer Action (BCA), the San Francisco organization that runs the Think Before You Pink campaign, which encourages consumers to be wary of the purchases they make in support of the month.

Since 1992, thousands of pink marketing campaigns have popped up everywhere, all claiming to donate a portion of their proceeds to breast cancer research and prevention. BCA launched its Think Before You Pink campaign in 2002 to raise awareness of the exploitive nature of some of the pink campaigns. Its Web site lists a number of pink campaigns and the dollar amounts donated to breast cancer foundations when the company reveals that number. They also list concerns about some of the companies and some “critical questions” for consumers to ask when choosing where and how to donate.

One company that the organization highlights is Estee Lauder. The company has continued to sell a line of Pink Ribbon 2006 products, but they have refused to sign the Compact for Safe Cosmetics pledge promising to keep carcinogenic ingredients out of their products. Many of the company’s products contain chemical preservatives that have been linked to increased risk of breast cancer.

The pink ribbon trend began in 1991 when The New York Times declared that year “the year of the ribbon,” citing the ubiquitous red AIDS ribbons, according to That year, Alexandra Penney, editor of Self magazine and Evelyn Lauder of Estee Lauder cosmetics collaborated for Self‘s annual breast cancer issue. They wanted something flashy that would grab everyone’s attention and decided to make a ribbon of their own. The color: Estee Lauder’s 150-pink.

The month is named for awareness, and that’s what most companies say they support with your money. But Farmer said awareness isn’t enough, that after ten years of Awareness Months, little progress has been made in what we know about the disease.

“We’re all aware that breast cancer is a problem, but at this point we need action,” said Farmer. When health professionals find a tumor in a woman’s breast, Farmer said they still can’t determine whether or not it will spread into cancer. “With all the money that’s getting raised … tens of millions … we still don’t have an answer to that question many women will have when they’re first diagnosed: Is my disease going to kill me?”

Although the number of reported cases of breast cancer has risen since BCA’s first 1990 meeting, so has the number of people working to stop it. BCA was founded by four women hoping to help educate women and prevent breast cancer, and according to their Web site, more than 17,000 people across the U.S. have joined their group to fight the disease.

Like Farmer, BCA Executive Director Barbara Brenner said that activism is the key to making progress. “We would suggest that after you do your walk or run or buy your product, really think about what you can do to make a difference,” Brenner said.

Still, with so many resources going into the fight against breast cancer, Brenner said the problem is steadily increasing. “An easy way to think about breast cancer numbers is to think about it this way: 10 years ago a woman in the United States was diagnosed with breast cancer every three minutes. Today, it’s every 1.9,” said Brenner. “We are here to educate and prevent breast cancer, but we are looking to a future where we don’t have to be here.”