October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time to provide education on the condition and encourage awareness about testing and early detection. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 297,790 cases of invasive breast cancer diagnosed in women and 2,800 for men in the United States in 2023.¹ In addition, there will be an estimated 43,700 deaths from breast cancer.

Since its inception, Breast Cancer Awareness Month has grown considerably in its pursuit to spread awareness and raise funds for research. In the past few decades, more organizations have begun their own initiatives involving breast cancer awareness in October, making the fight against the disease better known to the public. How did Breast Cancer Awareness Month begin? How has it grown over the years? And what impact has it made on breast cancer prevention and treatment?

When Did Breast Cancer Awareness Month Start?

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month began as a weeklong event in 1985. It was organized by the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries, which would later become part of AstraZeneca.²

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Also involved was Betty Ford, the wife of former President Gerald Ford. Not long after her husband became President in 1974, Betty Ford underwent a mastectomy to treat breast cancer. Ford’s openness about her experience increased both media coverage and public awareness of breast cancer, providing the research community with much-needed publicity.³ In the years following her procedure, Ford would become a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society and advocate for early detection and screening, which became a focal point of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

What is the Pink Ribbon?

Though the first initial pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness is generally attributed to the Susan G. Komen Foundation in 1991, its emergence as a widespread symbol came not long after.⁴ A partnership between Self magazine and businesswoman Evelyn Lauder saw the ribbon grace the cover of the magazine, along with over 1 million pink ribbons handed out at Estée Lauder makeup counters. This was the catalyst for the growth of the pink ribbon as one of the predominant symbols of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

In the ensuing decades, the pink ribbon has become so synonymous with breast cancer awareness that some campaigns have drawn criticism for the proliferation of pink merchandise. This became known as “pinkwashing,” or benefitting from excessive marketing utilizing pink without necessarily putting the proceeds toward breast cancer research. The term, in other cases, refers to companies that promote the pink ribbon while selling products with chemicals potentially linked to breast cancer.⁵

What is the Impact of Breast Cancer Awareness Month?

One of the goals of Breast Cancer Awareness Month is to promote awareness of the condition. It’s also intended to fund breast cancer research and stress the importance of early testing and detection. In the 38 years since the initial Breast Cancer Awareness Week, how successful has the initiative been in these goals?


After the initial pink ribbon campaign, Estée Lauder continued to expand their outreach and bring greater awareness to breast cancer. In 1995, over 2 million ribbons were given out at Estée Lauder counters; in 1997, famous actress and model Elizabeth Hurley became the Estée Lauder Companies’ spokesmodel for their breast cancer campaign.⁶

Other organizations, including those outside of traditionally feminine products, have used their platform to spread awareness. Notably, from 2009 to 2016 the National Football League (NFL) dedicated the month of October to promoting breast cancer awareness while working with the American Cancer Society.⁷ This included pink ribbon designs on the field and pink merchandise. The NFL reported to have raised nearly $15 million for the ACS in that timespan. Following the 2016 season, the NFL shifted October to an initiative called “A Crucial Catch,” designed to highlight other screenable and detectable cancers.

Campaigns such as these increased public awareness of breast cancer, even compared to other cancers with specific awareness months. A 2022 study in Cancers sought to quantify the online public awareness of breast cancer during October and found a significant jump in online search traffic during Breast Cancer Awareness Month between 2012 and 2021.⁸ They also found Breast Cancer Awareness Month to be particularly successful compared to Lung Cancer and Prostate Cancer Awareness Month in this metric. The researchers concluded that, due to increased search volume for breast cancer donation and events, the campaign has been especially successful at bringing awareness to the cause.


The increase in public awareness and donations has encouraged more organizations to help. One of them, co-founded by Evelyn Lauder, is the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF).

Started in 1993, the BCRF is responsible for a number of research breakthroughs since its inception.⁹ In 1994, for example, the location of the BRCA1 gene was discovered, providing valuable information on its role in hereditary breast cancer. The year after, another team of scientists discovered the BRCA2 gene. Both of these breakthroughs involved scientists who would go on to receive grants from the BCRF.

Early Detection

Though breast cancer incidence has increased yearly since the mid-2000s, the ACS claims that, as of 2020, the mortality rate among females had declined 43% since its peak in 1989.¹ The reasons for the decline were the factors Breast Cancer Awareness Month was started for: earlier detection via mammography, increased awareness of breast cancer testing, and improvements in treatment due in part to increased research and funding.


1. Cancer Facts & Figures 2023. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/content/dam/cancer-org/research/cancer-facts-and-statistics/annual-cancer-facts-and-figures/2023/2023-cancer-facts-and-figures.pdf. Accessed August 15, 2023.

2. Rogers K. Breast Cancer Awareness Month | Description, prevention, & history. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Breast-Cancer-Awareness-Month. Updated November 10, 2020. Accessed August 15, 2023.

3. Wu C. A leading lady. Cancer Today. https://www.cancertodaymag.org/fall2012/betty-ford-yesterday-and-today/. September 27, 2012. Accessed August 21, 2023.

4. Waxman OB. Wearing a pink ribbon for breast cancer? Here’s how it began. Time. https://time.com/5408929/awareness-ribbons-history/. October 1, 2018. Accessed August 22, 2023.

5. What is pinkwashing? Breast Cancer Action. https://www.bcaction.org/pink-ribbon-marketing-culture/what-is-pinkwashing/. Accessed August 22, 2023.

6. The breast cancer campaign. The Estée Lauder Companies. https://www.elcompanies.com/en/our-commitments/the-breast-cancer-campaign. Accessed August 23, 2023.

7. Vrentas J. The NFL moves on from pink October. Sports Illustrated. https://www.si.com/nfl/2016/12/13/nfl-breast-cancer-awareness-month-october-becomes-all-cancer-awareness-month. December 13, 2016. Accessed August 23, 2023.

8. Nishimura Y, Acoba JD. Impact of Breast Cancer Awareness Month on public interest in the United States between 2012 and 2021: A Google Trends analysis. Cancers (Basel). 2022 May 21;14(10):2534. doi: 10.3390/cancers14102534. PMID: 35626141; PMCID: PMC9140129.

9. Advancing our understanding. Breast Cancer Research Foundation. https://www.bcrf.org/breast-cancer-research-breakthroughs. Accessed August 24, 2023.