The humble beginnings of breast cancer awareness.
I called Nancy Haley because I wanted to hear about her mother, the late Charlotte Haley—a housewife, community volunteer, and creator of the world’s first breast cancer ribbon campaign.
“She was a character,” Nancy said. “If you met her she would probably make you laugh. She just had a wicked sense of humor.”
Charlotte Haley lived in Simi Valley, California, a sprawling suburb of Los Angeles. Her daughter Nancy actually still lives there, in her mom’s old house.
Charlotte was always family-oriented. So when her older sister, and then her daughter Nancy got breast cancer in the 1980s, it hit her hard. And at that time, there wasn’t much of a breast cancer movement. So Charlotte decided to start one in Simi Valley. She wanted better funding for breast cancer research, and to promote self-exams and testing. So she created a simple awareness ribbon to fold and pin to a piece of card stock. The ribbon was peach, her favorite color.
“Breast cancer awareness ribbon,” the card read. “Join this grassroots movement. Help us to wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.”
Charlotte started handing out the ribbons in her grocery store parking lot. She’d leave stacks of them at doctors’ offices.
Around the same time, a group of artists in New York had created a ribbon for AIDS, a red one. And by late 1992, the red ribbon had made an incredible amount of progress for AIDS awareness. Charlotte figured her peach ribbons could do the same for breast cancer. So she decided to take her ribbons global. She also sent them to first ladies, and Dear Abby.
“It was just the idea that people can wear something,” Nancy Haley said, “If they see it they’ll ask you the question, ‘Why are you wearing a peach ribbon?’ And people would tell them.”
Nancy guesses her mother mailed about 40,000 ribbons across the world—five per envelope.
“And her grandson Carl,” Nancy explains, “would fold the ribbons and she would pin them on.”
Carl’s dad, Charlotte’s son, would drop him off at grandma’s after school. Nancy helped too, she’d go to JoAnn Fabrics and buy up all the peach ribbon reels. Charlotte’s husband worked extra hours to help pay for the materials and photo copying. She wouldn’t take any money for her efforts. She’d return checks voided, tell people to give their dollars to cancer research instead.
Charlotte’s ribbons started getting mentions in the local paper, then the LA Times. And then, came the phone call that changed everything.
“They called,” Nancy remembers, “and my dad was on the other phone, and they wanted to just, you know, help promote breast cancer awareness with the peach ribbon.”
“They” being Self Magazine. Specifically, the editor at the time, Alexandra Penney.
“And my mother and dad were looking at each other,” Nancy continues, “and they said, ‘Well, what are you going to do with it?’ And they said, ‘Companies are going to do it, and then a percentage is gonna go to breast cancer.’ And [my mother] said, ‘No, you’re going to commercialize it. That’s making money off of somebody else’s pain and suffering, and I’ve been through that with my sister and my daughter, and we just can’t do that.'”
I talked to Alexandra Penney. She didn’t want to be interviewed for this story. But she said she’d figured she and Charlotte Haley were in the same boat. She’d seen people she loved suffer from breast cancer, she was upset how low the funding was for research. And she wanted better visibility for breast cancer awareness. But she wanted to pair with businesses to do that.
Penney was confused why Charlotte Haley would refuse her partnership, but she had her heart set on a ribbon campaign—with or without Charlotte’s cooperation.
“They said, ‘Well all we have to do if we want it is change the ribbon,'” recalls Charlotte Haley in the 2011 documentary Pink Ribbons.
Penney’s lawyers told her she just needed a new color. She chose pink. And teamed up with Estée Lauder, the makeup company. The October 1992 issue of Self Magazine launched the pink ribbon breast cancer campaign. And Estée Lauder handed out pink ribbons at its makeup counters across the country.
And basically, that was it for Charlotte Haley’s peach ribbons. The pink ribbon became the breast cancer ribbon we all know today. And Alexandra Penney’s remembered as the ribbon’s creator.
But her ribbon wasn’t the first pink ribbon either.
The Susan G. Komen Foundation, the people that do the big breast cancer fundraiser, the Race for the Cure, they’d already handed out pink ribbons at their first New York City race in 1991. Pink happened to be the foundation’s color.
“Alexandra Penney, I’m fairly certain was at or around the first race,” says Vern Calhoun, director of communications at Komen Greater NYC. “So, I’m guessing that she saw it at the race, and that it stuck with her, come 1992 when she was looking for a way to blow out breast cancer awareness month for the magazine.”
Original or not, Penney’s pink ribbon, and the commercial campaigns that followed, did change the game for breast cancer. In the early 90s, it was a disease you only whispered about.
“You know,” says Calhoun, “nowadays I don’t think anybody thinks twice about talking about it, thank god. But back then it was dirty.”
It’s hard now to even imagine that breast cancer had some kind of seedy connotation. These days it’s presented like some wave of pink goodness, even the NFL goes pink for breast cancer each October. But talking about breast cancer meant talking about breasts.
“And a lot of women felt stigmatized when they got it,” explains Calhoun.
And it’s not just attitudes that have changed around breast cancer. There’s now a whole host of new treatment options. Breast cancer research is now the best-funded cancer research in the country, according to the American Cancer Society. So much awareness has been raised that some people say it’s gone too far.
“If you go to the internet,” says Calhoun, “then yes, you’ll find all kinds of stuff about pink fatigue. Generally speaking, from my point of view, anything that makes people think about breast cancer is a good thing.”
Charlotte Haley passed away last February at the age of 91. Her daughter Nancy says the pink ribbon, and the wider breast cancer awareness that followed, the credit goes to Charlotte’s grassroots campaign.
“We talked about it about a month before she passed away,” Nancy remembers. “My sister and I were there. We both looked at Mom and said, ‘Hey, you started that.’ And she just laughed, she says, ‘Yep, I did.’ ‘Even though it’s a different color it’s still your idea Mom. And look what it’s become.’ We were so proud of her.”
This August marks 26 years that Charlotte Haley’s daughter Nancy has been clear of breast cancer. Charlotte’s older sister, Iris, has been breast cancer-free for over 30 years, she’s now 93 years old. And the five-year survival rate for early-diagnosed breast cancer is now nearly 100 percent.