Cokie and Steven Roberts
They will come by the tens of thousands. They will be young and old, women and men. They will be of all races, clothed in many colors. But mostly they will be women and they will be wearing pink. In what has become an annual rite of spring, on June 2 they will be running in the Race for the Cure for breast cancer, starting on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., And those racers will save lives.
Marking its 25th anniversary this year, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which cooked up the idea of races to raise money in the fight against breast cancer, grew out of a promise from one sister to another. As Susan Komen lay dying, her sister Nancy Brinker vowed to work to find a cure for this killer of more than 40,000 American women every year. She hasn't succeeded yet but, along with many other cancer-battling groups around the country, the Race for the Cure proves that grassroots advocacy works.
Cokie first started advocating against breast cancer one wintry day in January 1992, when she went to the funerals of two friends. Both women in the prime of life, senselessly deprived of decades with their husbands and children, never meeting their grandchildren, decades when they could have continued making significant contributions to the community. The statistics were startling then as they are now, one in eight women can expect to contract breast cancer over the course of a lifetime.
At that point the federal dollars dedicated to research on AIDS were greater than those allocated for all cancers and heart disease combined. Why? Because of advocacy. In 1991, prompted by people wearing yellow ribbons as a sign of respect for troops fighting in the first Persian Gulf War, red ribbons sprouted on the lapels of artists and actors, signifying solidarity with those braving another battle — this one against AIDS. Horrified by the sudden spread of the deadly new disease, members of the gay and lesbian community organized lobbying efforts that convinced Congress to ante up funds to attack it.
And research followed the dollars. As a result, in America a diagnosis of AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence, and the transmission of the disease from a pregnant woman to her newborn baby has virtually disappeared. In much of the rest of the world, and in poor and minority neighborhoods in this country, the lack of testing and treatment for AIDS means it remains a mass murderer, and a cure is still an unfulfilled promise requiring more research money, but advocacy around the disease has prolonged thousands of lives.
Women affected by breast cancer — and so many are, almost 180,000 more will be diagnosed this year — soon learned that lesson, and began to pin pink ribbons to their dresses, shirts and sweaters. And then companies got into the act, and the ubiquitous symbol now shows up everywhere — on makeup, and jewelry, and water bottles, and running shoes, and bathmats and you-name-it. Those efforts paid off in Congress as well, where appropriations to study the disease have increased by two billion dollars since the day of our friends' funerals in 1992.
Little did Cokie suspect then that she would be one of the women benefiting from the advocacy. But a diagnosis in 2002 added her name to those of more than 2 million women in this country who have been treated for breast cancer. Treated for it, and living. Living because the cancer was found early due to increased awareness about the importance of mammograms, living because of treatments like tamoxifen, and herceptin and aromatase inhibitors, all developed by researchers using those all-important dollars. That's why the women in pink who will race on the National Mall next week matter so much.
The danger, after 25 years of running hard, is that you get tired. But it's no time to slow down. A new report shows a drop-off in the number of women getting regular mammograms, even though everyone knows early detection saves lives. The death rate from breast cancer among African-American women stubbornly refuses to drop to that of their Caucasian sisters. Too many poor women receive no care at all. And that cure promised by Nancy Brinker to her sister remains just as elusive as ever. Run, ladies (and gentlemen) run.
Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.