Cancer Ribbons and What They Mean

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on May 18, 2022
4 min read

If you or someone you know has cancer, you're probably familiar with the colored ribbons associated with the many forms of the disease. These ribbons help fundraising campaigns and heighten awareness. They've become so common that more than 30 cancers have staked claim to a specific color -- or multiple ones. Some colors represent more than one form of the disease.

The use of ribbons as a symbol of support and solidarity has been a thing for some time. The idea may have sprung from a folk story from the 1950s about a reformed prisoner returning home on a train. He instructs his family members to put a white ribbon in a tree if they want him to get off the train. Otherwise, he'll keep on going to a new life.

In the early 1970s, the song "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" became a hit for the pop group Tony Orlando and Dawn. And in 1979, Penne Laingen seized the idea of a yellow ribbon to advocate for the return of her husband, Bruce, one of the U.S. hostages held in Iran. After the press reported what Penne had done, yellow ribbons blanketed the country.

It appears that the use of a colored ribbon to raise awareness for cancer began with a very modest movement in 1991. A woman named Charlotte Haley began handing out peach ribbons at her local grocery store and doctors' offices with a postcard attached that called attention to the lack of funding for breast cancer prevention.

In 1992, after hearing about Haley's efforts, Alexandra Penney, an editor for Self magazine, asked Haley if she could use her ribbon in an issue about Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Haley refused, saying that Penney's effort was too corporate. Instead, Penney chose a pink ribbon and came up with the idea to hand out pink ribbons at makeup counters in New York City to call attention to the effort. The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation began handing out pink visors for participants in its Race for the Cure in 1990, so the color pink already had an affiliation with breast cancer.

Soon, ribbon and color came together and, by the late '90s, was launched and, later, the nonprofit Pink Ribbon International was born. The idea of raising awareness through colored ribbons took off.

Wonder which ribbon is associated with which cancer? Here are some of the most well-known cancers, the colors associated with them, and a bit about their awareness efforts:

Breast cancer: Pink
Awareness month: October
Apart from the runs and walks that are most associated with fundraising for breast cancer, there's also "Game Pink," an initiative to raise money and awareness through playing video games.

Leukemia: Orange
Awareness month: September
Since 1949, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society has raised more than $1 billion to fund research to find cures for leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease, and myeloma. The bigger umbrella of blood cancer uses a red ribbon and also has September as its awareness month.

Prostate cancer: Light blue
Awareness month: September
Since 1996, the Home Run Challenge, co-sponsored by Major League Baseball and the Prostate Cancer Foundation, gathers pledges for every home run hit during MLB games from June 1 through Father's Day. In 2019, the challenge raised more than $1.4 million.

Lung cancer: Pearl or white
Awareness month: November
The American Lung Association's "Lung Force" urges women to stand together to fight lung cancer, the No. 1 cancer killer of American women. They do this through gatherings like cycling events, stair-climbing gatherings, expos, and clinics.

Kidney cancer: Orange
Awareness month: March
The National Kidney Foundation holds fundraising walks throughout the year. In addition, an organization called KidneyCAN holds concerts and golf tournaments throughout the country to raise funds for kidney cancer research.

Brain cancer: Gray
Awareness month: May
Since 2008, the city of Seattle has hosted the Seattle Brain Cancer Walk, a 1-mile walk and festival, in early May. Throughout the month, supporters of brain cancer research and awareness are encouraged to wear gray.

Pancreatic cancer: Purple
Awareness month: November
Each year on Nov. 19, the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research celebrates World Pancreatic Cancer Day. Supporters are encouraged to wear purple and share photos on social media to raise awareness.

Colorectal cancer: Blue
Awareness month: March
In March, the Colorectal Cancer Alliance urges people to dress in blue to bring awareness to the disease. Throughout the year, the alliance holds their "Walk to End Colorectal Cancer" at various locations throughout America.