Pink ribbon serves as symbol of hope

Published 8:10 am Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I came to know Margaret Brothers when I was a young attorney, fresh out of law school. Margaret spoke her mind cautiously, voicing her opinion only when necessary and only in sincerity, a quality that was rare then and even more rare today. I remember bringing my wife-to-be in to meet my coworkers for the first time. Upon her departure, the other women chatted animatedly about their approval of my new fiancée, while Margaret sat quietly in the back, her hands folded in her lap. As the other women returned to work, Margaret was the last to leave. As she stood up and began to walk to the door, my heart dropped. I was sure she disapproved. As she reached the door, she quickly spun around and looked me directly in eyes. “I approve,” was all she said. And that was all I needed.

And so began my friendship with Margaret. In the years that followed, I would come to know Margaret as a deeply loving mother, a hard-working employee, a true and dedicated friend and above all, a committed Christian. She was well-dressed, walked with poise and always carried a legal pad even years after leaving the legal profession to become a member of my congressional staff. She was always matter of fact, and her comments were to the point. And she used her smile like she used her words: carefully, genuinely and warmly.

In 2001, Margaret went to the doctor and heard the words that 200,000 women hear each year: “You have breast cancer.” Naturally, she and her family were shaken. For three years, Margaret endured doctor appointments, surgical procedures, and chemotherapy treatments. She lost some things — her hair, her appetite, and her energy, to name a few. But Margaret never lost faith in God or her devotion to others. Even when her strength was at its weakest and her own personal needs at their greatest, she came to work every day because she knew that in helping others she was living a life worth living.

On Oct. 17, 2004, surrounded by family and loved ones, Margaret died. We gathered on a rainy Wednesday to say goodbye.

October always reminds me of Margaret. It is the month she died, but it is also Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Twenty years ago, very few people openly discussed breast cancer. Today, pink ribbons can be found on wrist bands, lapels, bumpers and even football players and referees on Monday Night Football. Most of all, breast cancer awareness is highlighted by the growing number of survivors who are alive to share their stories of difficulty and triumph.

Each of us probably knows someone who has been impacted this disease. According to the American Cancer Society, one in eight women will get breast cancer in her lifetime. More than 40,000 people will die from the disease this year. Even for women who have survived cancer, the fear of the disease returning hardly goes away. Breast cancer is a ravaging disease that deserves our full commitment at a personal and federal level.

Campaigns like National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure have worked hard to draw attention to the importance of early detection for women across the country. Death rates from breast cancer have been declining since 1990 due in large part to these efforts. Over the past 20 years, mammography rates have more than doubled for women 50 years of age and older. Still, there are thousands of women who do not take advantage of early detection and others who do not get screening mammograms or clinical breast exams at regular intervals.

Mammography tests are proven to be the most reliable tests in early detection of breast cancer. Most private insurance plans, as well as government insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid, include regular mammogram screenings. Free and low-cost mammograms are also available for women without health insurance. For a list of programs near you, contact the Centers for Disease Control at (888) 842-6355 or the National Cancer Institute at (800) 4-CANCER.

The federal government has a role in fighting breast cancer, too. I’ve introduced a bill to help launch us into a new era of medical discovery in America and enable us to invest in cures for diseases that are impacting millions of Americans, like breast cancer. The Accelerate Cures for Patients Act, H.R. 3475, would double funding for medical research at the National Institutes of Health and prioritize funding towards research that has the greatest potential to become a useful treatment for patients. Imagine the impact we could have on a disease like breast cancer if we unleashed our best and brightest scientists to deliver us medical breakthroughs. Advancing these research efforts would bring an immediate impact to women across the country.

Together, we have an opportunity to come significantly closer to making breast cancer a disease of the past. Today, the pink ribbon serves as the official symbol of hope to the victims of breast cancer and to the family and friends who have lost loved ones. Perhaps the pink ribbon, through the efforts of citizens and public servants, will eventually stand for victory in cancer disease research.