● By Sandie Tillery
A Nationwide Movement Started in the North State
Story: Sandie Tillery & Kerri Regan
It started with 500 pink bags handed out on a street corner, the vision of a trio of passionate North State health care providers who had watched too many women die of breast cancer.
Today, the grassroots “Think Pink” effort has exploded into a powerhouse movement that has gained momentum far beyond its original reaches. On Oct. 16, hundreds of volunteers will distribute 40,000 bags of goodies that spread this lifesaving message: if you detect breast cancer early, you can beat it.
The endeavor began right here in the North State with three individuals who had vested interests in breast cancer: Dr. Michael Figueroa of Cancer Care Consultants, Carol Lake of the American Cancer Society and Melody Christenson, formerly of MD Imaging in Redding. They were inspired by the American Cancer Society’s pink ribbon campaign (the pink ribbon pin is one of the “goodies” in each Think Pink bag). Quite simply, the program encourages women to have mammograms, clinical breast exams and do selfexams with the goal of finding cancer early.
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, volunteers joined forces in October 1997 to pass out 500 bags on the corner of Gold and Court streets – right in front of MD Imaging, which at that time was the only place to get a mammogram in Shasta County. MD Imaging’s doctors covered the campaign’s cost the first year; recently retired Dr. Ric Steffens was a local pioneer of promoting quick and accurate mammography as an early detection tool.
Think Pink is now one of Northern California’s largest health awareness campaigns. Assembly of the bags now requires a warehouse, with space donated by local businesses. Volunteers from 9 to 90 years old fill the bags. The morning of the giveaway, “ambassadors” from community businesses pick up the bags and carnations for delivery to their co workers. Bags are distributed in Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama, Trinity and Modoc counties, according to Nor Cal Think Pink, and the idea has been adopted by organizations nationwide.
Fire engines, RABA buses and garbage trucks pull up to the curb, explains Think Pink bag giveaway coordinator Christenson, who has always been in front of MD Imaging at 4 am on the big day to give away Think Pink bags and pink carnations. She has learned not to be intimidated by burly guys on Harleys who stop to pick up a bag and to share stories of concern about the women in their lives – their mothers, wives, sisters, co-workers.
The goal is to increase the number of women who receive mammograms and clinical breast exams. Because most women over 40 cite cost as their obstacle for getting a mammogram, Think Pink worked with several North State groups to provide access to free mammograms. For instance, the Soroptimist’s Breast Cancer Detection Fund provides free mammograms to women or men who cannot afford the test or who don’t qualify for other free or low-cost screening programs. Mercy Regional Cancer Center in Redding offers free breast cancer screening for women older than 40 (call (530) 246-3729 for dates). California now requires insurance companies to cover mammograms.
And the campaign is working. More women are being screened for breast cancer, Christenson says, and more women are finding cancer early, while it’s still very curable. In the seven years before Think Pink, 11 percent of breast cancer was detected at Stage 0 (often a pre-cancerous condition), which has nearly a 100 percent five-year survival rate. Between 2000 and 2007, however, more than 16 percent of breast cancer was detected at this early stage. On the other end of the spectrum, the percentage of breast cancer left undetected until it reaches the most life-threatening stage has dropped by 1 percent.
“Until we defeat breast cancer,” Christenson says emphatically, “this [campaign] is not going away.”