October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. You would have to be living under a rock to not be touched by someone fighting, suffering, surviving or succumbing to breast cancer. Breastcancer.org reports 1 in 8 U.S. women (about 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. In 2015, an estimated 231,840 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 60,290 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer.
According to Sistersnetworkinc.org, a national breast cancer survivor network, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among African American women. White women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than African-American women. However, in women under 45, breast cancer is more common in African-American women than white women. Overall, African-American women are more likely to die of breast cancer. The risk of developing and dying from breast cancer is lower in Asian, Hispanic, and Native-American women.
Women have joined together in a variety of ways to offer comfort, solutions and support for women battling breast cancer. Many are working on awareness and prevention initiatives and taking action against this deadly disease, often in support of or in memory of someone they know and love. Such is the case with Tonya Marie Evans, a law professor who serves as Chair of Pinkwellchick Foundation, Inc. (PWCF) an organization that raises awareness of breast cancer and heart disease, supports breast cancer and heart disease research, works for better detection, diagnosis and cures and supports those diagnosed with breast cancer and their families through fundraising efforts, events, and survivor essentials.
The Pinkwell Foundation, Inc. was born during the courageous breast cancer journey of Barbra Watson-Riley, a breast cancer awareness and prevention activist, who valiantly fought the disease and unfortunately passed away on November 7, 2013. Through blogging and other activities, Watson-Riley dedicated her time and energy to ensuring that people understood the precariousness of battling breast cancer while offering a real world view of the disease. The loving wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend wrote a play called Life in the Cancer Lane, which she was able to produce and see performed before transitioning. Evans, Watson-Riley’s lifelong friend and chapter Soror, served as executive producer of the 2014 staging of Life in the Cancer Lane, starring stage and screen star Valarie Pettiford.
In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Barbra Watson-Riley, Evans took time out to share the story of her friend and Soror and what The Pinkwellchick Foundation is doing to keep Watson-Riley’s vision and creative work alive.
NB: Tell me about your relationship to Barbra.
TE: We both grew up in neighboring Philadelphia suburbs and attended rival schools (she attended Germantown Friends School and I attended Friends’ Central School). As fate would have it, we also attended Northwestern University in the late 1980s and we both are both legacies and members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. Barbra pledged me in 1989 at Northwestern University’s “Fly” Gamma Chi Chapter. We were lifelong friends.
NB: How did the Bag It™ initiative come about?
TE: In September 2011, Barbra was diagnosed with aggressive Stage 2, grade 3, triple negative breast cancer, a few months after a clear mammogram. She received a “chemo bag” early in her “life in the cancer lane”, which she treasured. She called it “the game changer”. It contained everything from air sickness bags, aromatherapy, ginger candies, lotion, blanket, socks just to name a few items. Because of the impact the bag had on Barbra, we knew she would have loved the idea of creating and donating similar bags to breast cancer patients undergoing chemo. In fact, it is precisely the type of service project Barbra would have led. So it is an honor to organize BAG IT™ for the CAUSE in Barbra’s honor and name.
NB: What is Bag It™ for the Cause Day of Service?
TE: Bag It™ for the Cause Day of Service is our annual service initiative. We engage “Ambassadors” around the country to lead the volunteer effort to assemble and to distribute free Barb’s Bags to cancer treatment infusion centers for female chemo patients diagnosed with breast cancer. This year, Bag It™ for the Cause was held on Saturday, September 26, 2015 in Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, New York, and Phoenix.
NB: What’s in Barb’s Bag™ of Care & Comfort?
TE: Barb’s Bag™ of Care & Comfort is an actual bag filled with essential items for chemotherapy patients to not only survive but thrive during their chemotherapy treatments. Think of it as a chemo survival kit!
Barb’s Bag™ of Care & Comfort is made of high-end, eco-friendly material and includes a range of essential products when going through chemotherapy. The bag also includes “Real Talk” information about what to expect during chemo and an exclusive access code to stream Life in the Cancer Lane from any device in the United States.
NB: Tell me about Watson-Riley’s play Life in the Cancer Lane.
TE: After Barbra’s cancer metastasized in 2012, Barbra and I spent a lot of time talking about the legacy she wanted to create during her life and the legacy she wanted to leave for her daughter, Blayre, and for the countless other women who were or would be diagnosed with breast cancer. Her motto was to “DO SOMETHING” and her goal in sharing the intimate “cancer real talk” details of her battle with cancer was to inform and empower.
She blogged about every intimate detail (the good, the bad, the ugly) at InkWellChicks.wordpress.com. Those reflections were, in conjunction with the stories she heard as a Board member of Komen Central Arizona, the basis of her play and also one of her most important and impactful legacies to help survivors and caregivers navigate “life in the cancer lane”.
After a courageous and vibrant life “in the cancer lane”, the journey of our Pinkwellchick®, aka Barbra Watson-Riley, ended on November 7, 2013. She gave an amazingly valiant and dignified fight and triumphed over death by leaving the world the legacy of her play highlighting survivor stories, Life in the Cancer Lane. It was truly a miracle for her to witness her life’s work come to life on stage just weeks before she transitioned.
NB: What does Life in the Cancer Lane represent creatively?
TE: Life in the Cancer Lane begins when women first hear the words “Breast Cancer”.
With honesty, heart and humor, this story is told from the real-life accounts of survivors and their caregivers, examining life after diagnosis and what happens when these women are thrown head first into the “Cancer Lane.” Whether it’s the chemo side effects or loss of hair and friends, the play examines the twists, turns and bumps in the road along the breast cancer journey.
NB: There are so many breast cancer organizations. Why should people support The Pinkwellchick Foundation?
TE: One of the benefits of supporting PWCF is donors and sponsors can see how each dollar makes a difference. Our fundraising campaigns tend to be event specific. We raised over $40,000 to professionally produce Life in the Cancer Lane at the esteemed Herberger Theatre in Phoenix. We also raised over $15,000 for the 2015 Bag It™ for the Cause National Day of Service. We connect directly with treatment centers, hospitals and organization focused on the cure and the daily care and support of survivors and their families and caregivers.
NB: If people can’t contribute financially, what else can people do to raise awareness about breast cancer in the African-American community?
TE: There are so many ways to get involved to raise awareness. The most important action is to, as Barbra would say, DO SOMETHING. Support PWCF or find a local organization that is actively involved in directly impacting and improving the lives of survivors. Give of your time, talents and treasures. Participate in walks. Share information. Encourage self-exams. Be the best and healthiest “you” you can be! Encourage your friends and family to do the same. There is strength in numbers and knowledge is power.
Pinkwellchick Foundation, Inc. offers meal preparation, prescription support, cleaning, childcare, transportation, lodging, counseling services and more. For more information on Pinkwellchick Foundation, Inc., click here.
To make a tax-deductible contribution, click here.
Follow Pinkwellchick Foundation on Twitter @Pinkwellchick or on Instagram @PinkwellchickInc.
This article was written by Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., founder & editor-in-chief of the award-winning news blog The Burton Wire. In the interest of full disclosure, she is also a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Fly Gamma Chi chapter. Follow her on Twitter @Ntellectual.