October 8, 2012 9:53:01 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
Rarely a day passes that they don't think about breast cancer. At their age, the odds are in their favor. Fewer than five percent of women between the ages of 20 and 40 are diagnosed with the disease. But a quick show of hands reveals another statistic -- nearly all of them have been affected by breast cancer, whether through the diagnosis of a family member or talking with a survivor and feeling the fight hit home.
For the 200 members of Mississippi State University's Gamma Zeta chapter of Zeta Tau Alpha, breast cancer awareness is both national philanthropy and personal mission. And though October is traditionally set aside for awareness campaigns, for these young women, it is a year-round passion.
Sunday afternoon, several of the women gathered on the back patio of the Zeta house, covering the picnic table in a plethora of pink. Giant pink ribbons. Tiny pink ribbons. Pink banners. Pink calendar reminders. Pink cards to hang in women's showers, reminding them to perform self-exams and offering a handy, step-by-step guide.
Even their T-shirts were emblazoned with the words, "Think Pink," a registered trademark of the national sorority since 2004. Since 1992, Zeta Tau Alphas nationwide have distributed 11.1 million reminder stickers, 10 million pink ribbons and 9.9 million shower cards.
They have also raised big bucks for the cause. This summer, MSU's chapter was recognized by the ZTA Foundation for raising $25,000 over the past two years. Between 2008 and 2010, they raised $50,000.
Their modus operandi varies from month to month, but their mission remains the same: Empower women to take charge of their breast health through self-exams and mammograms, because early detection is critical.
Pink, pink, everywhere
ZTA President and Starkville native Lindsay Linhares, 21, scrolled through the calendar on her phone Sunday, skimming past exam dates, mandatory meetings and social functions, searching for ZTA's upcoming awareness events.
Lately, she and Think Pink chairman Anna Warren, 19, have been immersed in planning their biggest breast cancer event of the year -- "Think Pink Week," which will take place the last week of October.
On Oct. 31, from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., they will open the ZTA house to the public for a late cinnamon roll party, charging $3 for tickets. On Nov. 1, they'll hold a step show at the Starkville Sportsplex, charging $5 per person.
All month, they'll participate in Pink Thursdays, wearing their special Think Pink! T-shirts.
They began collecting Yoplait yogurt lids last month as part of the General Mills "Save Lids to Save Lives" campaign and will continue to do so until December, placing boxes at strategic locations across campus and at grocery stores in Starkville and Columbus. Yoplait -- and 19 other General Mills brands -- will give 10 cents per lid to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, and lids submitted by Zetas will generate an additional five cents for the ZTA Foundation. Since 2004, ZTA women have collected more than 1 million lids.
There are other national partnerships as well.
For the past 11 seasons, ZTA chapters have paired up with the National Football League to raise breast cancer awareness at NFL games, distributing more than 850,000 pink ribbons.
They were at Sunday's pink-infused matchup between the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers, with players from both teams donning hot pink wrist bands, gloves, shoe laces and hand towels as part of the NFL's "A Crucial Catch" campaign.
There were pink numbers on the scoreboard and pink decals on the pigskin. Pink coins were used for the coin toss, and the referees carried pink whistles. When Brees and Co. posted a 31-24 victory over the Chargers, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome basked in a glow of, you guessed it -- more pink.
And October won't end Zeta Tau Alpha's involvement. The MSU chapter will coordinate Think Pink basketball, soccer, softball and tennis games this year.
This spring, they will host another cinnamon roll night.
Though they're involved in other philanthropic endeavors, breast cancer awareness is the one for which they are best-known and most passionate.
Sisters in pink
That passion impressed Linhares and ultimately influenced her decision to join Zeta Tau Alpha.
In an age of social media "slacktivism," it is easy to join a Facebook cause without ever lifting a finger. You can "like" a Facebook status or retweet a Twitter post without giving it more than a passing glance.
But Linhares noticed the Zetas were actually doing things. They were out in the community, distributing peppermints, pink ribbons and encouragement at the Starkville and Meridian breast health centers. They were on campus, painting signs and talking to other young women about the importance of early detection.
And they remained engaged, long after they graduated. Once a Zeta, always a Zeta, they say, and Linhares saw it was true. On a Delta airline flight to Puerto Rico with her parents, the stewardess gave pink ribbons to the passengers. That flight attendant was a Zeta.
For some, the mission has become a source of comfort.
MSU ZTA historian Julianna Salyer, 20, was a freshman when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had just joined ZTA, had just gone through the October awareness campaign, when she learned the news. And suddenly, she understood the importance of what she was doing.
"I was like, oh my God, this is in my family," she said Sunday afternoon, shivering in the late evening chill. "It just hit me: Everything we had just done, all that work, was for (women like) my mom."
Around the same time, Warren's grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was lucky -- it was detected early. But Warren knows that for many women, especially those younger than 40, breast cancer isn't something they think much about. They know self-exams are important, but they don't always see breast cancer as a real and present concern.
She hopes that through ZTA's philanthropy, they can encourage women to move beyond awareness to action.
"I want people to go the extra step and get tested," she said.
Through their participation in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, each year, they have met Zetas currently battling breast cancer, as well as survivors and those who have lost loved ones to the disease. It hits them hard.
"You're doing your own thing in life, and you don't realize that, in a second, everything can change," Linhares said. "We're so passionate about our mission of letting people know and being aware early. It's like a whole other sisterhood outside of Zeta."
For more information about Zeta Tau Alpha's campaign at MSU, or to make a donation, please contact Linhares at [email protected], or visit their website-in-progress at msstate.zetataualpha.org.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.