Pink_ribbon.svgThis week’s plan was to share my dismay over the phenomenon of aligning colors with causes, syndromes and diseases. Wherever I turn, it seems one group or another has claimed a slice of the color wheel for their cause. So, I’m sure it’s no cosmic accident that before I sat down to write this column, I received a Caring Bridge post from a dear friend’s daughter—a beautiful young woman whose recent double mastectomy was just the first step in her cancer treatment. Her post rebuts those questioning the commercialization of all things pink, and who have come to call the month just past, Pinktober.

I didn’t know from Pinktober last October when our plane was approaching Phoenix.  From the air I saw sizable quadrants of the city festooned in pink; streets the pink shade of ballet shoes, wound through the city. And then I realized—Breast Cancer Awareness month. From the air, the city was veined in Breast Cancer Pink. It gave me an uneasy pause about the cause.

Some time later I was running errands and saw bright teal ribbons tied to every lamppost in town. The ribbons had been printed with words in support of ovarian cancer awareness. Purple, I now learn, is the color associated with domestic abuse awareness. A quick trip to Wiki’s ribbon awareness page informs me that light blue is for twin-to-twin transfusion awareness, denim blue is for genetic disorders awareness and purple is not only for domestic abuse awareness but 28 other conditions and causes including lupus, migraine, and testicular cancer awarenesses.

The article I planned on writing was to focus on my ambivalence over the colored ribbons and disease awareness. Because I happen to love color.  Enormously.  I was one of those kids who swooned in ecstasy when gifted with the granddaddy set of 64 Crayola crayons.  I loved the words as much as the colors: cerulean, periwinkle, burnt sienna, carnation.  I insisted my mother play name-the-color with me: she would streak one of my precious waxen sticks across drawing paper for me to identify. I wavered between red-roange and orange-red but nailed midnight blue and cadet blue and could discern the subtleties between orchid, thistle and lavender. I still can, although many names have gone the way of all flesh. The excitement I get from seeing and using beautiful colors is a wonderful gift from God. Put me in a field of delphinium or lupine and you may never see me again. Even nutritionists have come around to the way I’ve always fed my family—striving to make each meal a rainbow.

Researching the article I planned on writing, I came across the concept of Blue Dread. Seems the Roman Empire feared and despised the color blue, associating it with blue-eyed Celtic and Germanic invaders who used indigo to paint their bodies and hair, giving them an unnerving ghostly appearance in battle. In culture upon culture red evokes power and aggression. Archeologist/ethnologist Ann Varichon notes in her book, Colors, that the insulting howlers Hogwarts students receive are sent in bright red envelopes. Color is so much more than disease awareness!

But then came last Monday’s link to Casey’s Caring Bridge site and her entry weighing in on those denouncing everything Pinktober. She copped to agreeing with some of the complaints, even those from breast cancer survivors who denounce the focus on breast cancer’s for-profit aspect, companies that do not disclose what they do with their funds and the reality that most breast-cancer awareness campaigns ignore metastatic disease.

But then she wrote about how glad she was that Knowledge of early screenings helped me find my tumor at such an early stage and preserve a good prognosis. Campaigns … inform young women that they can get breast cancer at such early ages and about the importance of screenings. Breast cancer patients are no longer ostracized. Purchasing products adorned with a pink ribbon may be a way for someone to give when they don’t know another way… Some amount of proceeds to charity is likely better than none. Possibly most importantly, awareness month brings people together. All in all, I wish companies would rethink some of their products and how they use awareness marketing, but I’m thankful for all the support I’ve received. 

The article I set out to write might have begun much the same, but will end differently than planned. I might still rue this modern-day melding of colors to causes, but recognize how important it is to increase awareness of today’s foes and invaders. I acknowledge how fortunate I am that my color choices center around the blessed ordinary: clothes, wall paint, food. I am grateful for research that helps saves lives, and continue to support friends who participate in the walks each October. Most of all, I send out a special note of love and awe to my young friend who has met her diagnosis with courage, humor and determination to prevail.  To you, Casey, and to life, in all its glorious colors.

color postThree great books about color:

Mauve: How one man invented a color that changed the world by Simon Garfield.

Indigo: In Search of the color that seduced the world by Catherine E. McKinley

Colors: what they mean and how to make them by Anne Varichon

An exhibit for those living in Boston: Think Pink, Museum of Fine Arts

An easy recipe for a purple side dish: Saute onion and thinly sliced apples in a bit of olive oil till soft but not mushy. Then, add shredded/chopped red cabbage and cook till just bright and still crunchy.  Season as preferred. Enjoy eating a PURPLE food!

I invite you to send this column with friends and family who have taken up a color and cause. Please feel free to use the comment space below to share your thoughts on the issue.