This Sunday, thousands of women who were breast cancer survivors and fighters, along with their friends, families and supporters, gathered in the rain at the lakefront for the annual Susan G. Komen race for the cure. Somewhere in that crowd were some folks likely staying the night in one of the InterContinental Hotel’s Pink Rooms.
Just last Thursday, only a few days before the race, a large crowd gathered in the lobby of the InterContinental (a sister hotel to the Pfister, in the Marcus Hotels family) to celebrate the one year anniversary of the Pink Rooms. Servers circled around the room, offering up appetizers and specialty pink cocktails, while attendees mingled. A tree sprouted from the tile floor, its bare branches pinched by pink ribbons featuring handwritten names of loved ones who had fought breast cancer. Perhaps symbolically, the tree was slated for the woodchipper but has been given new life, donated by the city for the purpose of spreading hope. Each ribbon tied to it was paid for with a $5 donation and features the name of a breast cancer survivor, and will stay up through October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Some of the women, in pink blouses, sweaters, jackets or scarves, stopped by the WELL Spa + Salon table where they could sample services. A large pink ribbon cake was held aloft next to several dozen mini pink cupcakes. It was a lot of pink. Even the men wore pink – mainly in their ties and shirts.
All of these people were here to celebrate an idea that started over a year ago when three hotel employees – Bridget Gallagher, Sarah Geitner and Susan Cusatis – came up with the idea to offer up a themed room in support of breast cancer. With the support of Steve Marcus, the hotel’s general manager Tim Smith and local designer Beth Howley worked with Bridget, Sarah and Susan to design two rooms, with pink accents and special artwork. The cost of staying in one of these rooms goes to support ABCD: After Breast Cancer Diagnosis, a network of survivor-mentors and recently diagnosed mentees. A year later, the rooms have provided a lush overnight experience to 480 guests from 21 states and 6 countries, and the board president was presented with a very large check (really, it was an oversized cardboard check!) in the amount of $8,150.
Everyone I spoke to was there because they, or someone they knew, had been touched by breast cancer: a personal fight, or that of a family member, spouse, boss, or co-worker. There were photos blown up and perched on stands, each showing a pair of smiling women, who had connected through intensive work akin to matchmaking. One committee member explained how ABCD is different, being “all about free, one-to-one support. We match survivors with participants who’ve been recently diagnosed. They’re like you, from a similar background, and the matches aren’t just for the new patient, but also for the spouse, child, friend – whoever needs that extra, personal support.” Mentors are trained extensively in areas of continued education and interpersonal skills.
As ABCD surpasses geographical boundaries, networking women together in a chain of hope and support, so the Pink Rooms have done the same even here at this cocktail party, which is flush with happiness, not sadness, hope, not hopelessness. Other groups in Milwaukee, each with a different angle, but all working together, had members eager to share their stories, and connect to others.
I met Kathie Walker, an 11yr survivor of breast cancer, who is a member of the Milwaukee chapter of Sisters Network, a national network focusing on African American women. Kathie explained how their work is increasingly in untapped neighborhoods, as they cross cultural lines in order to “nip it in the bud wherever we can find it.” “It” being awareness and education, which can be difficult when organizations don’t feature diversity. “It’s all about the testimony. It’s your biggest sell point, and women will listen to women who are like them.”
This idea, the commonality needed in connecting women who are like each other, in order to teach awareness and cultivate support, was also evident in the testimony of Kate Kucharski, a young woman who was diagnosed in 2008, at age 32. A healthy, non-smoker, with no family history of cancer, Kate was diagnosed completely out of the blue. She had an aggressive tumor and went through 16 rounds of chemo, putting her cancer into remission in April 2009. Engaged when she was diagnosed, her fiancee couldn’t deal with the stress and broke up with her in the middle of it all. She felt like things were falling apart. But, “things happen for a reason,” this bright-eyed, broadly-smiling blond told me. “I’m the type of person to go out, do something, and finish it.” So, she reached out to other young women affected by breast cancer and created Milwaukee’s Young Survivor Coalition in January 2011. Drawing its circle around the 45 and under crowd, they are a network of 40 young survivors who offer monthly events for socializing, education, and support. Young cancers have a higher mortality rate, and the young women found their concerns were different than the older survivors they spoke to: a 19yr old is worried about college, engagement, a baby on the way, and having really young survivors who have been in remission for years is very encouraging.
“I’m winning the fight, and helping other girls win, too.” concluded Kate, in a sentence that perfectly summarized the purpose of ABCD, the Sisters Network, and the Pink Rooms.
The work that these women are doing via their organizations, along with the hard work of friends, family, and other supporters is what continues to keep people hopeful that should they, or someone they know, be affected by cancer, they can find reasons to fight and people who will fight with them.