After four years cheering for the New England Patriots I still get the same excited, giddy, anxious feeling before every game. Each game is special and I feel lucky to be a part of every one. But, there is one game in October that holds a special place in my heart.
Every October the NFL goes pink to support breast cancer awareness. Each team dedicates one game during breast cancer awareness month to call attention to the disease in hopes of promoting early detection. The result of this game is a powerful visual. Players, coaches, stadium staff and cheerleaders dress in as much pink as possible (while still sporting team colors), survivors are invited to be a part of a pregame ceremony, messages advocating for frequent mammograms and early detection are spread throughout the program book and pink paraphernalia is sold with a portion of the proceeds going to help find a cure.
Although sometimes the amount of pink we see throughout October can be overwhelming, I am a firm believer that even if it reminds one woman to do a breast self exam, it is worth it. Throughout my years with the New England Patriots Cheerleaders, my feelings surrounding the BCA game have changed. The first year I was on the team, my 36-year-old Aunt Helene had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. She was the third member of my family to be diagnosed, following my grandmother, Ann, and my Aunt Geanine, who are both survivors.
I remember feeling optimistic about her diagnosis knowing she had caught it early, was undergoing treatment right away and had two beautiful young children to support and encourage her in the fight she was about to endure. I sent her photos from the game of the cheerleaders wearing pink and making the breast cancer ribbon with our pom poms. She loved them and I remember thinking I’d love to have her come to the next BCA game at Gillette.
By my third year on the team, Helene was battling her second stint with breast cancer, had moved from Virginia back to Massachusetts to be closer to family and now had three small children. Her cancer had metastasized and by football season it was moving faster throughout her body than we had hoped. I wanted her and her husband to be able to attend the BCA game, get away for the night and have fun, but at the time she wasn’t able. That December, Helene passed away at the age of 39. I remember attending practice a few days later and both my coach and teammates trying to lift my spirits as I tried to dance the pain away.
Fast forward to year four on the team and this year, the Patriots asked the cheerleaders if we’d like to invite anyone we knew who was affected by the disease to be part of the pregame breast cancer survivor tribute. Hearing the news, I felt emotional. I was excited to invite my Aunt Geanine to attend with her husband and saddened to not have the same opportunity with my Aunt Helene.
While practicing the pregame tribute, which was building a breast cancer ribbon with 325 survivors and their caregivers, I saw my aunt shed a tear when the song we’d be walking on the field to came on. I knew we were both thinking about our angel, Helene, and reflecting on the fight both Geanine, my grandmother and the hundreds of other women and men there had undergone or were going through. As I looked around at couples, families, mother and daughter pairs, women who had lost their hair, women who were just growing their hair back and the people who loved them looking admiringly at them, I couldn’t help but realize we were all part of something much bigger than wearing pink for breast cancer awareness month. October is a time to reflect on the 2.8 million people living in the United States with a history of breast cancer, to applaud their strength, to commend their caregivers and to make their stories heard with the hope their experiences help others in the future.
At the end of the tribute this year, breast cancer survivor, Beth Ann Steele, ran on the field holding a flag saying “A Crucial Catch” the title of the NFL’s BCA initiative. She is an example of why the NFL continues the BCA game tradition and credits finding her cancer early to the NFL’s efforts.
Seeing pink throughout October may become cliche, but if it reminds one of the one in eight woman who will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime to do a breast self exam, it is worth it.
In 2014, 40,000 women are expected to die from breast cancer in the U.S. alone. I challenge everyone to take the NFL’s lead, embrace pink this month listen to stories of those who have or are going through breast cancer. Early detection saves lives, and that is something worth cheering about.