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. A member of the Breast Cancer Consortium, Kristi now strives to educate others about how to avoid being “pinked” by the ribbon and instead make more informed decisions. Her essay was first published on Pink Ribbon Blues.

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.

  • Major corporations market their products with pink ribbons so families who have been impacted by breast cancer will purchase their t-shirts, body washes, koozies, flashlights, lip gloss, shampoo, necklaces, even trucks or cars.
  • 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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