Whether they’re pinned to someone’s chest, stuck to the back of a car window or emblazoned onto a T-shirt, cancer ribbons are a ubiquitous sign of cancer awareness.
Ribbons of all colours can be seen throughout the year as people show their support for all types of the disease. Some of the more common ones include pink for breast cancer awareness and orange for blood cancer, however, there are many others.
But the idea to use ribbons to raise awareness for a cause didn’t start with cancer. In fact, the concept dates back to the middle ages, when yellow ribbons were given to knights. They were later associated with the United States Army to symbolize that a loved one is serving their country. Penny Laingen, whose husband was a hostage in Iran, was apparently the first to use the ribbon in this way, tying yellow ribbons around trees after getting the idea from the pop act Dawn’s song, Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.
The pink ribbon made its debut in 1992, after Alexandra Penney, editor-in-chief of Self magazine, created it to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, using cosmetic companies to distribute them in stores. Since then, ribbons have been used to mark a variety of health issues, from Alzheimer’s (purple) and AIDS (red) to bipolar disorder (green) and brain disorders (silver), but cancer tends to be the disease most often associated with awareness ribbons.
In case you are wondering what the colours mean, here’s a look at some of the more common cancers and the colour of the ribbon that represents each one.
Breast cancer, pink
Maybe the most recognizable ribbon, pink breast cancer awareness ribbons are used on anything from pins and clothing to major campaigns, usually in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The National Football League even had players use pink gear for a few years to help raise awareness of the disease and promote screening. The pink ribbon is also sometimes used to promote awareness for all cancers, though a lavender ribbon is the official colour for that cause.
Prostate cancer, blue
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, one in nine men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime. Chances are you have seen the light blue ribbon in September, which is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month.
Lung cancer, white
The white ribbon represents lung cancer in conjunction with Lung Cancer Awareness Month in November. The Government of Canada reports that more people, both male and female, die from lung cancer than any other type of cancer — around 29,000 Canadians developed lung cancer in 2019.
Pancreatic cancer, purple
About 6,000 Canadians were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020 and about 5,300 Canadians died from it, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. This deadly cancer is represented by a purple ribbon, with November being the month of awareness.
Skin Cancer, black
May is Melanoma Awareness Month in Canada, appropriately timed since it’s right before the start of summer. According to the Save Your Skin Foundation, around 6,800 Canadians are diagnosed with melanoma each year. A black ribbon is often used to show support for skin cancer.
Ovarian cancer, teal
Teal is another commonly seen colour of cancer awareness ribbons, showing support for ovarian cancer, the fifth most common cancer in women and the most serious women’s cancer. According to Ovarian Cancer Canada, 3,100 Canadian women will be newly diagnosed with the disease this year.
There are also many cancers that are represented by multi-coloured or patterned ribbons. A zebra-print ribbon is often used to support carcinoid and neuroendocrine cancer, as well as other rare cancers. A burgundy and ivory ribbon is used for head and neck cancers such as throat, thyroid, sinus or oral cavity cancers.
Sometimes the colours used for certain kinds of cancer can vary based on region. Bladder cancer uses a yellow, blue and purple ribbon in the United States, but in Canada, Bladder Cancer Canada uses yellow-gold branding for their ads and communications with a matching ribbon.
No matter what colour you wear or type of cancer you support, wearing any kind of ribbon is great way to advocate for funding new research or treatments and show support for those living with the disease.
Some other kinds of cancers and their ribbons include; appendix cancer (amber), bone cancer (yellow), brain cancer (grey), colon cancer (dark blue), testicular cancer (purple) and uterine cancer (peach).