When Janet McNeill's sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 1990s, the signature pink awareness ribbons only came with a cosmetic product or two.
Now one can buy a week's worth of groceries, feed a cat, cure a yeast infection and catch a flight all while using pink ribbon-endorsed products and transportation. For McNeill, watching images of the National Football League players with pink gloves, pink cleats and pink towels this week pushed her cynicism over the edge.
"At first, I got excited about all the pink. It makes you really feel good, and then seeing everyone come together at the Avon walks, it was just so exciting," said McNeill, 50, whose sister died of breast cancer in 2000. McNeil was diagnosed with the disease last June.
"As the years go on … you begin to question," said McNeill. "It's sort of like pink is green for people. It means money for them, or it means attention … but where is the money going, what are they actually doing to eradicate this?"
Many agree with McNeill. Despite the multi-millions funneled to nonprofits each year through pink campaigns, some leading breast cancer activists, doctors and organizations have begun to grow wary, and wearier, of pink labels.
Stories about who originated the pink ribbon vary from organization to organization. San Francisco's Breast Cancer Action claims the infamous pink ribbons originated with Charlotte Haley, a 68-year-old woman in the 1980s, who started a grass roots peach ribbon campaign in her kitchen.
Other organizations say the pink ribbon was inspired by the red HIV/AIDS awareness ribbons and was adapted to a feminine color.
Whoever started it, no single organization can lay claim to pink or pink ribbons as a symbol for breast cancer today. As a result, hundreds of products may be bathed in pink in October to mark breast cancer awareness month.
"As a whole, the marketing of breast cancer has gone too far. I saw last year a yeast infection treatment sold to promote breast cancer; there are fishing rods and riding saddles," said Samantha King, author of "Pink Ribbons Inc.," and an associate professor at Queen's University, in Kingston, Ontario.
"I have to say, I'm little flummoxed. Marketing 101 suggests that you need to try to distinguish your product from its competitors, and with breast cancer, it seems to turn that on its head," she said.
King said she received a surprising response from frustrated breast cancer survivors after she published her book. "Pink Ribbons Inc.," examined the psychological effect of seeing cancer reminders everywhere when you're fighting the disease. Her book also tried to highlight the exchange of funds between pink products and philanthropic organizations.
While some products clearly stated how much money was going toward research, King said other companies simply put pink on their products to "raise awareness" without donating any proceeds toward research.
"I agree that the proliferation of pink is no longer effective. Women need to ask how much money is actually being contributed and where. The answer is not necessarily just more research but research that will find the cause of the disease," said Dr. Susan Love, president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation.