Thinking Pink

Bea Carpenter

Unless you lead a Facebook-free life then you probably won’t have failed to notice that this week in Cambridge it is Pink Week! It came to Cambridge in 2014 and entails a week of both fundraising and events with the overall aim of raising awareness of breast cancer. It begins with a ball and is followed by a series of events from exercise classes to formals. The week is also about education: the committee aim not only to de-stigmatize the often ‘taboo’ topic but also to inform women (and men!) at our university of how to check for any abnormalities, so as to improve early detection rates and prevent unnecessary scares or anxiety.

I am not in the amazing team behind pink week this year, but I did attend the panel discussion they organised on Monday evening at the Union. It was a conversation chaired by Sofia Weiss between four incredible women who work in various fields concerning breast cancer, from the charity aspect to a breast cancer surgeon. Half of the panel had also experienced breast cancer including blogger and motivational speaker Heidi Loughlin, author of ‘Storminatitcup’, who has stage four inflammatory cancer and Liz O’Riordan, a breast surgeon who was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer in 2015 and recently finished treatment for a local relapse. The conversation shared was insightful and informed, prompted by excellent questions from Sofia Weiss and the audience members.

Something that really made me think was the discussion of “Pink publicity” and the pink label we have given breast cancer. It reminded me just how important the way we paint a topic in society really is. Given that men get breast cancer too, pink could be seen as exclusionary in its traditional gender role. However, we are slowly erasing these gender binaries and, moreover, breast cancer is broadly speaking a woman’s issue, as though men can develop it and should be aware of the warning signs, for the 54,800 cases seen in woman each year in the UK only 390 men are diagnosed (Cancer Research Uk statistics). Another issue with pink is that it is often seen as a somewhat innocent, sweet and happy colour, thus begging the question: does pink branding trivialize the important issue at hand?

The panel had plenty of thoughts on this topic. Heidi remarked “pink stinks” and confessed to hating the colour, but still recognized the value it has in spreading awareness of breast cancer and how various retail brands can use it as a talking point or a way to raise money for research. The danger seems to be that pink is often abused. The panel mentioned inappropriate products they’d seen in pink, such as “pink ghds”, when people with cancer so often lose their hair due to chemotherapy, or pink gin when alcohol can’t be drunk by those undergoing treatment and is a risk factor of cancer to begin with. These seemingly commendable charitable products can come across as distasteful and insensitive. There is also the danger of pink being misused in advertising and retail in the absence of any fundraising or awareness, with the colour simply being commodified.

A representative from Breast Cancer Now spoke about the charity’s recent efforts to ensure their branding was appropriate for their audience, introducing grey into their logo for example, but that pink was still used because it had become a sort of symbol. It is a colour we all associate with breast cancer, largely thanks to Estee Lauders’ pink ribbon campaign that began in 1992 following her own experience with breast cancer, with their commitment to helping create a “breast cancer free world” doing wonders.

Although clearly problematic, pink can also be empowering for those with or who have been through breast cancer. It can be worn in solidarity by other members of the public and is often a way to inject a little joy into a painful journey for many.

Pink week is an example of the power of pink. It strikes a perfect balance between putting on unique and fun events to attract attention and interest while simultaneously providing resources on education and the support systems available, accompanied by enormous charitable efforts.

Another buzzword of the panel was ‘battle’, something we often use to describe people’s journeys with cancer. For some survivors it can be an empowering self-identification to refer to themselves as ‘warriors’ as it signals their strength and acts as a mark of what they’ve been through. But for women like Heidi who has an incurable form of breast cancer, labeling it as a ‘fight’ makes her feel she has been put, without choice, into a category of ‘losers’ along with the other women who die because of their breast cancer. Although it can have the greatest intentions, referring to someone who has been through cancer as a ‘fighter’ or ‘warrior’ is a slippery slope and potentially results in that person becoming defined by their cancer.

The panel discussed a plethora of other issues including the controversial topic of screening lead by Dr Rosalind Given-Wilson a consultant at St.Georges hospital and a discussion on the lack of desperately needed post-chemotherapy mental health support in the healthcare system.

Yet the main thing I took away from this panel was just how important it is to consider the way we discuss cancer and display our support for those diagnosed. We must be careful not to tiptoe around it, but also ensure we are sensitive, un-patronising and aware of the impact our words and actions can have and not underestimate the power of pink.

If you would like to also use pink wisely and support Cambridge Pink Week you can! Their own merchandise is available to purchase, linked below and check out the rest of their website for more information on what they do and why.

Pink week stash –

Pink week website –

Alternatively you can support incredible charities funding vital research and education in all sorts of ways, a few are linked below.

CoppaFeel –

Breast Cancer now –

Breast cancer care –

 A small contribution I made last year was  purchasing a tee shirt from the incredible Girl vs Cancer tit-tee shop. Mine is adorned with embroidered bees but they have some great designs worth checking out and other products like bags, jumpers etc. plus 25% of all profits go to their partner charities. It was set up by Lauren Mahon who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was under the age of 30 and aims to “open a dialogue on this sensitive subject” and stop “scaremongering” in the media from putting people off getting their symptoms checked. All round a great venture to support.

GirlvsCancer –

Featured image source: Pacing Around the World Photography

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