The breast-cancer-awareness message wrapped in a pink ribbon and distributed by celebrities and sponsors is now as recognizable as that ubiquitous green-and-beige coffee shop on every corner. Companies from the Hard Rock Cafe to Chevron, and from Estée Lauder to Fuji, give the cotton-candy-colored loop exposure as they cozy up to the mature woman and her disposable income.
This successful corporate marketing campaign seems to have worked on the level it was intended: The proliferation of the “for a cure” message has led to lots of talk about “early detection,” “self-exams” and “mammogrophy”—terms that percolate through women’s consciousness and lead them to be more proactive about their health. But the media blitz hasn’t reached everyone. That’s why Grace Wright, a North Carolina native, works to ensure the message gets to women who don’t fit as easily into the marketing mold.
Working out of the Wake County, North Carolina Office of Disability and Health (NCODH), Wright uses her charm and charisma to empower women with moderateto severe-developmental disabilities who might otherwise be uncomfortable with the idea of self-breast exams at home or mammograms in a doctor’s office.
Wright is a founder of Women Be Healthy, a program where she teaches this often-overlooked group an eightweek course on making monthly self care routine. The course provides information on what to expect during clinical breast, mammogram and pelvic exams, covers reproductive health as well as active participation in one’s overall wellness.
Women with developmental disabilities may find managing their health care an overwhelming prospect—if they think of it at all. But Wright’s easy-going communication style creates a sense of trust and empowerment, which has led to women in her circle to take a more active role in this critical area of their lives.
“They’ve all been taught to keep their dresses down, but they don’t know how to identify their body parts,”
Wright laments. “We were naming the different parts of the pelvic area one day, and we could tell that they didn’t have a clue about what we were talking about!”
After the women become familiar with the clinical names for their body parts, Wright shows them a video of exactly what goes on behind exam-room doors, which reduces the women’s anxiety around visiting a physician.
Even with her compassion and coaxing, some women are still frightened, Wright finds. “I hear it all the time: ‘I’m afraid it’ll hurt,’ they say. I tell them if they choose to endure those few seconds, it could save their lives.”
Wright frequently gives inspiring talks that move people to action. One woman who attended one of her lectures, approached Wright afterwards, explaining that she felt a lump in her breast but was afraid to go in for an exam. Wright immediately offered to go with her.
“I told her I’d cancel my scheduled appointments. She said, ‘You’d do that?’ So I gave her my card and said to call me.”As promised, Wright accompanied her to the doctor. The lump turned out to be malignant. It was removed, and the woman went through a treatment that possibly saved her life.
Wright possesses a passionate desire to reach out and help those who need her. Her enthusiasm, she believes, “is a calling from God. I enjoy educating people, talking to people… I enjoy sharing and learning new things that I can pass on.”
Wright has served others throughout her career. Her first volunteer experience allowed her to help children with disabilities. In 2003, she also founded, through her church, a food pantry, for which she currently serves as executive director.
Working within the African-American community, she founded the volunteer agency, Save Our Sisters of Rex. “I love this group of women, they’re dedicated and committed. We’re about outreach, planning and getting things done.” SOS also educates African-American women on the importance of getting screened for breast cancer. Wright said that the incidences of the disease are much higher within this group, and yet the organization offers free screenings to all. “We go out into the community two times a month with our mobilemammography bus and give a free breast exam to anyone who wants one.”
The seeds of her work with breast-cancer awareness were planted in childhood. “When I grew up in Wake County, North Carolina we lived in what everyone called the home-house.” Since her family had the largest home in the extended family, relatives came there when they were ill. Wright’s mother and grandmother cared for sick family members, and she grew up with a living example of the healing powers of love and compassion.
One day, when Wright’s adult cousin was being cared for at the home-house, the woman’s towel accidentally dropped. Wright remembers that she and the other children broke out in laughter when they discovered something very odd—the woman was missing a breast. Not until she was an adult did Wright realize what her cousin had gone through. She is still haunted by her own careless laughter.
She’s made up for the cruelty of that moment many times over. Recently she received the honor of being named one of 25 dedicated people who received the 2007 Yoplait Champion honor. “I will never forget the award ceremony; it was an evening of elegance,” Wright said. Winning the award came as a surprise. “The first time they called I was up to my eyes in Toys for Tots at my church so I deleted the message after listening for a few seconds to a lady with a really highpitched voice.” At work the next day she got a call forwarded to her desk. “At this point I was starting to get irritated that the same lady was calling back; I thought it was a sales call. She was so nice and excited, and she said she needed information. Finally I realized that I had won this honor,” Wright said.
Yoplait gives a $1,000 donation to the charity of the honoree’s choice. Wright directed the contribution to The Merry Way, a faith-based organization in her Wake County community, which provides community outreach services such as food, gas, transportation and other necessities to folks in need.
Wright doesn’t give herself a gold star for her work in service of the pink ribbon. “Just hearing a survivor story is reward enough.” Giving to others is not only the right thing to do, it brings her happiness and fulfillment. “I love it,” she says.
National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM), characterized by a pink ribbon and a race, blows in with fanfare each October. Unseasonably packaged in an abundance of shades, the PR pink-out arrives as effortlessly as autumn. It may be hard to overlook the hoopla, but, in case you missed it, the core message is about the importance of early detection, with a special emphasis on regular mammography exams. National Mammography Day is on the third Friday in October and was first proclaimed by President Clinton in 1993. On this day, women are encouraged to make mammography appointments and some medical facilities offer free or reduced-cost screenings.
Beast cancer statistics are alarming. According to Komen for the Cure, breast cancer affects one in eight women. About 178,500 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be found in women this year, and about 40,000 women will die. Men have a lower chance of getting breast cancer, but it is estimated that 450 men will die of breast cancer this year as well. Black women have a higher breast cancer rate than any other ethnic or racial population. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in black women and it’s their second leading cause of death, exceeded only by lung cancer. Another group at higher risk is Jewish women of Ashkenazi descent. The two most significant risk factors are being female and getting older. Women over 50 bear the majority of breast cancer occurrences and deaths.
Featured prominently during NBCAM, Komen for the Cure is noted for pioneering race-for-a-cure fundraising with its first race in 1983. It was founded by Nancy Brinker, the sister of Susan G. Komen who died of breast cancer at the age of 36 and requested that her sister do everything possible to bring an end to the disease. Her sister kept her promise by establishing the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, now one of the most prominent and influential grass-roots breast cancer organizations.
But, NBCAM has a corporate, cure-centered beginning. Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca established the monthly October event in 1985 and maintained exclusive management of it for years. Currently, AstraZeneca HealthCare Foundation along with numerous other organizations, medical associations and agencies sponsor NBCAM.
While AstraZeneca enjoys its association with the popular pink ribbon campaign, the company has been criticized for not mentioning in any of its NBCAM literature how reduced exposure to environmental carcinogens can help in cancer prevention. Also, AstraZeneca produces tamoxifen, a leading breast cancer treatment drug. It is known that tamoxifen causes uterine cancer, liver cancer and gastrointestinal cancer, and that after just two to three years of use, tamoxifen will increase the incidence of uterine cancer by two to three times. The biggest shock is the fact that tamoxifen will increase the risk of breast cancer. The journal Science published a study from Duke University Medical Center in 1999 showing that after two to five years, tamoxifen actually initiated the growth of breast cancer.
Recently, another pharmaceutical link to breast cancer was discovered. A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine shows breast cancer rates decreased substantially with almost a 10 percent drop. The commonly held attributing factor is a drop in hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Breast cancer rates fell in direct correlation with women canceling their HRT prescriptions following a 2002 study that linked hormone replacement with heart disease. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the two most commonly prescribed forms of HRT in the United States, Premarin and Prempro, had their steepest declines starting in 2002-2003 — from 61 million prescriptions written in 2001 to 21 million in 2004. Turns out, the estrogen in HRT actually grows certain types of cancer.
Donald Berry, chairman of the department of biostatistics at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston said, “From 1975 to 2000, breast cancer incidence increased rather dramatically. While part of that increase was clearly due to the introduction of screening mammography, once you take out that effect, there is still a rather astounding increase of 30 percent.”
“While there have been a number of theories put forward to explain the increase, it now looks like some of that increase is due to the use of HRT,” Berry said. “When women stopped using HRT, it looked kind of like a market correction and the numbers went back down.”
Komen for the Cure recently branched out from the corporate-led, cure-centered and breast screening-based methods to breast cancer eradication by funding a study on environmental factors. Teaming up with the Silent Spring Institute, Komen for the Cure published Environmental Factors in Breast Cancer, the most comprehensive review to date of scientific research on environmental factors that may increase breast cancer risk (now available to all online). Factors included in the study for cancer risk were body size, physical activity, environmental pollutants, and diet.
The study unearthed 216 chemicals that cause breast cancer in animals. Out of those, 73 have been present in consumer products or as contaminants in food and 35 are air pollutants. Maybe you don’t want your clothes quite so white, because Amsonic acid, a fluorescent whitening agent used in laundry detergents, has been shown to cause mammary tumors in female rats, for example. Or, what about your tap water? MX, formed during the disinfection of drinking water, a by-product of chlorinating agents, has been shown to increase malignant mammary gland tumors in animal studies.
Twenty-nine of the 216 chemicals found are produced in the United States in large amounts, often exceeding 1 million pounds per year––probably one reason why the Silent Spring Institute says that living in developed nations increases breast cancer risk. And according to Devra Lee Davis, director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, “One in ten women who develop breast cancer do so because they inherited a defective gene from their parents. That means that 9 out of 10 women who get the disease were born with healthy genes. And yet something happened to those genes in the course of a lifetime to give them breast cancer.”
Davis, author of, The Secret History of the War on Cancer, also points out that every chemical that we know for sure causes cancer in humans also has been shown to cause cancer in animals. She points out that we don’t know if the opposite is true, but she believes it is. That’s why this recent study is so significant for her.
Learning that one’s environment causes cancer may make the problem seem overwhelming. Julia G. Brody, PhD, executive director of the Silent Spring Institute calls this discovery an opportunity. “While it is disturbing to learn that there are so many chemicals that may be linked to breast cancer,” she say, “there is also a great opportunity to save thousands of lives by identifying those links, limiting exposure and finding safer alternatives. It is critical that we integrate this information into policies that govern chemical exposures.”
If NBCAM and its power-of-pink message gets behind eradicating environmental carcinogens, who knows what sort of progress can be made? Just imagine a future of low breast cancer rates or even ending the disease altogether as Susan G. Komen requested––anything is possible.
by Lisa Wells