Looking back: Breast cancer activist Barbara Brenner on cancer wristbands

Barbara Brenner, a key figure in North American breast cancer history, wrote the following piece in 2005 as a Perspective for the San Francisco public radio station KQED. Brenner died in 2013. So Much to Be Done, an anthology of her political and personal writings, has been published by University of Minnesota Press.


Anyone who knows that I’m a breast cancer activist knows that you won’t find me wearing pink paraphernalia, let alone one of the Livestrong wristbands from Lance Armstrong. While I don’t wear one, it did strike me when the yellow wristbands first appeared that they are visual evidence of the number of people who are living with cancer in the United States.

But that’s not the visual effect we’re getting. Instead, we’re seeing a whole rainbow of wristbands, including the pink ones signifying—you guessed it—breast cancer. Dr. Susan Love is raising funds with one; Target is selling “Share Beauty, Spread Hope” bands; and the Komen Foundation offers its very own “Sharing the Promise” version.

As a breast cancer activist, I’m concerned that, once again, the breast cancer movement is separating itself from the rest of the cancer world. This might sound strange, coming from someone who works for a breast cancer organization and who’s been living with this disease for 12 years. But I hear from increasing numbers of people that breast cancer gets a disproportionate amount of attention, especially when the incidence of many other cancers is also on the rise. And I’m worried that things like these pink wristbands will only add to a growing sense and frustration that breast cancer advocates don’t see themselves as part of a larger cancer community. For once, can’t breast cancer advocates be trees living in the forest of folks living with cancer?

I think we do everyone a great disservice when we separate ourselves in unnecessary ways. Would there be some harm in people who care about breast cancer wearing a yellow wristband? Is there anything gained by separating ourselves with pink ones? Can’t we sometimes work with a bigger vision that sees what we have in common instead of what separates us?

Like many people, I’m inspired by Lance Armstrong. I’m also inspired by the many women who continue to live their lives despite breast cancer and other cancers. Instead of a colored wristband, I wear a button that says, “Cancer Sucks,” which speaks to everyone’s experience with the disease. The language isn’t pretty, but neither is cancer.


Barbara Brenner was executive director of the nonprofit organization Breast Cancer Action, based in San Francisco. She died in 2013 at the age of sixty-one.

Several events are planned in the San Francisco area and elsewhere around the launch this month of So Much to Be Done, an anthology of Brenner’s writings. Click here for a full list of events.

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