Teen girls won't be pretty in pink this year just for the fun of it. Many have signed up to duke it out with breast cancer as "Pink Ambassadors" for the Sisters Network, a national organization of African-American breast cancer survivors.
"We are just so excited about launching this new initiative with teen girls," said Carolyn Whitney, president of the Memphis chapter. "Out of the 40 national affiliates of the Sisters Network, Memphis was chosen as one of two pilot cities to kick off this new program with teens. The other pilot project is in Houston."
From Whitney's vantage point, "Teens 4 Pink" couldn't have begun in any other American city but Memphis for one simple but tragic reason.
"Memphis has the highest mortality rate from breast cancer than any other city in the nation," said Whitney. "We decided to 'Teen Up' in an effort to educate and empower our girls to become the voice of reason in a community where health disparity persists, and we as African-American women are accustomed to taking care of other people and neglecting our own health."
By the close of school this year, Whitney hopes to have more than 1,000 Pink Ambassadors to "break the hold that breast cancer has had on African-American women in Greater Memphis."
Christine Verini, vice-president of Corporate Communications and Advocacy for Eisai, Inc., said the company jumped at the chance to sponsor "Teens 4 Pink."
"This is not about marketing products, this program is about supporting an innovative approach to education and prevention of breast cancer, especially in communities where there is such extreme disparity in healthcare and statistics," said Verini.
"We have a Human Healthcare Mission here, and we address the concerns of individuals and their families. That is a genuine commitment. 'Teens 4 Pink' will change the statistics, one family at a time."
According to Sisters Network, a 2012 study sponsored by Avon revealed that "as many as five African-American deaths might have been averted through early screening and intervention."
"There is still such a great disparity in healthcare for women of color," Whitney said. "We have failed to take responsibility for our own health. Moving forward, we want to get an early jump on teaching our daughters to take responsibility for their own health and to help motivate their mothers and grandmothers and aunts to do the same."
A new voice
Tarrolyn Barras is a 17-year-old senior at Houston High School, one of the freshest new voices for education and prevention of breast cancer in her family and community.
"I found out about 'Teens 4 Pink' when Ms. Whitney came to talk to 'Girls Intended For Greatness' (sponsored by the National Council of Negro Women of Memphis). We were taught about breast self-exams, clinical exams, mammograms and ultrasounds for prevention and early detection of breast cancer."
With a firm commitment to be a Pink Ambassador, Barras know the value of maintaining good health.
"Breast cancer effects the African-American population so much," she said. "And the sad thing about that is we can take preventive measures and detect a problem early before it becomes life-threatening."
After attending the Sisters Network session, Barras left determined to find out if the women in her family were doing what they were supposed to do.
"They gave us a survey of about 20 questions we could ask the women in our family," she said. "That started us talking about if we had a family history of breast cancer. I sat down with my mother, grandmother and great aunt. It turns out that we don't have a history of breast cancer on either side of my family.
"But the point is, we talked openly about it. And we have to start talking about cancer. Not too long ago, people didn't speak about breast cancer, or any other kind. When my grandmother and even my mom were coming up, people just didn't talk about it. 'Teens 4 Pink' is changing all that," said Barras.
"We will make a change for the better because we are encouraging our families to talk about breast cancer and to do what is necessary to prevent breast cancer and detect it early. So many have died, and we need to open the conversation and continue having the conversation with the women we love.
"This is our opportunity to take the lead. It is empowering because we know we can make a difference."
A luncheon for all Pink Ambassadors is slated for Saturday, May 17.
A matter of perspective
Native Memphian and breast cancer survivor Trudy Smith Murrell of Chicago offers this reflection:
"...As a breast cancer survivor in my early 60's, I marvel at the wonderful advances which have been introduced over the past four decades. My grandmother, Ocie Henderson, died on Christmas Day, 1973, in the hospital. She was only 59. Five years prior to her death, she had been treated with a radical mastectomy.
"Back then, doctors would perform the surgery, administer radiation treatments, and then pray the cancer would not return. Today, we know so much more about how to take better care of ourselves—what to eat, the importance of exercise, and how critical it is to get regular checkups and mammograms each year.
"And this new 'Teens 4 Pink' program is awesome. Our girls will be healthier, and their girls after them. What strides we will make in our community as our children lead us going forward..."
(To learn more about becoming a Pink Ambassador, visit teens4pink.org; call Carolyn Whitney at 901-789-7239, or visit www.sistersnetworkmemphis.org.)