Vol. 14 Issue 3, Fall 2009
Many of you have received the closure statement I issued in late October in the mail or have seen it on our website. It is reproduced on page 2 of this, our final issue of The Ribbon newsletter. My parting words are not going to focus on the final chapter, but rather what is between the bookends.
My time with BCERF has been bracketed by cancer in my own family. In late September 1995, less than two months after I moved from North Carolina to Ithaca, New York, my father was diagnosed with colon cancer, and died less than six weeks later on November 11, 1995. It was during his last days when I was with my family in Rhode Island that Dr. June Fessenden MacDonald, the first director of the BCERF program, called me and asked me if I would consider being a part of a new program at Cornell that would address concerns of breast cancer advocates who wanted to know if pesticides and other environmental chemicals were factors in the rising breast cancer incidence and mortality rates seen in many New York State (NYS) counties. To use my knowledge of toxicology to start a cancer prevention program grew out of my desire to both continue my work in breast cancer research and make a difference for those families affected by cancer. I knew how hard it was to lose someone to cancer.
By November 30 of that year, I had drafted a mission statement and scope of work that has guided the program to this day. The core of the program has always been the evaluating the strength of the scientific evidence, translating it into educational formats for many different stakeholder groups, and providing forums for all interested stakeholders to openly discuss the merits of emerging evidence. At the bottom of the scope of work, I wrote a short statement that we needed money to print brochures. I was a naÃ¯ve scientist.
When we were granted funding in the NYS budget in 1996, June told me her first priority was to hire a health educator to develop a newsletter. I thought she was nuts. I knew of no scientific or academic organization that had an ongoing newsletter for the general public. We didn't even have examples of what kind of format to use. Carmi Orenstein, who had a unique background in public health, workplace safety, and environmental public policy, was hired as the newsletter editor, a post she has held for The Ribbon's entire publication history. The name, The Ribbon, came from our first logo: a map of New York State draped in a pink ribbon. We later used the concept of the ribbon for one of our first statewide outreach events not to signify the traditional "pink" ribbon, but rather as a ribbon that ties generations of women together: our mothers, daughters, and granddaughters, who may be affected by breast cancer.
The Ribbon's format was like no other, using a symposium style to convey the latest emerging research on environmental factors that affected breast cancer risk. The newsletter is only one example of how BCERF transformed traditional print media into an innovative approach. We also used emerging electronic media to provide cancer prevention messages as well as to communicate cancer risk assessment information. When our first website was launched in late 1996, the internet had barely been born. We were thrilled when our first Critical Evaluations, Fact Sheets, and Breast Cancer Maps received a total 450 hits per month. During the month of October 2009, the BCERF web site received 246,851 hits.
In 2007, I approached Dr. Jodi Korich, an educational film producer in our department about our desire to make a pod cast on the breast cancer risk of environmental estrogens, and Jodi took us in new directions by producing video clips for young women on estrogens in cosmetics, plastics and laundry detergent for YouTube. But, it took eight months of script writing, storyboard development, and the work of a production team of actresses, animators, and film and audio editors before we had a final product (recently released on DVD as one of our last educational products). This is an example of how an idea became synergized by a marvelous creative team that was committed to reaching young women with ways they could reduce their risk of breast cancer.
I have spent the last several weeks cleaning out offices of other staff members. The files for each project are thick with communications between staff members, collaborators, and advisors drawn from the target populations. They show the evolution of a creative idea to a honed product, as well as the evaluation data compiled to measure its usefulness to our target audiences. It's been a hard exercise to cull the files to the few pieces of information we will ultimately archive. What stands out for me is again BCERF's commitment to base our work on the scientific evidence, the creative energy and synergism of the talents of so many staff, and the commitment to work in partnership with our stakeholders.
In my first draft of this letter, I started to compile a list all of the health educators and outreach coordinators, research associates, administrative assistants and managers, student research assistants, web writers, masters, and programmers, collaborators, graphic artists, animators, and film producers that have contributed their talents to our program. I filled half a page. I also started to list all of our partners and stakeholders, including a legion of cancer and environmental advocates, scientists in cancer research and toxicology, teachers, women firefighters, pesticide applicators and horticultural workers, Cornell Cooperative Extension educators, occupational health nurses and physicians, and our many colleagues at the NYS Department of Health and Department of Environmental Conservation. This compilation would fill many chapters. To all of these marvelous individuals and organizations, I must express my deep thanks for your dedication, commitment, and belief in the ability to make "sense of the science" for cancer prevention. I also must thank our directors, Dr. June Fessenden MacDonald, Dr. Rodney Dietert, and Dr. Rodney Page, for your dedication, mentorship, guidance, and most recently for thoughtful leadership during times of difficult decision making.
I mentioned that my years in BCERF have been bracketed by experiencing cancer in my own family. This past February my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma. We will never know the exact cause of her cancer. She reads The Ribbon from cover to cover. She read it while going through months of chemotherapy. If in some small way our work over the years has helped other women and men who also read The Ribbon to be empowered to make decisions in their personal lives or workplaces to reduce their exposure to environmental chemicals that may affect their cancer risk, then we have been successful. While we write the closing words in our chapter, we know the final chapter on how chemicals affect the risk of breast cancer and other cancers is far from complete. My final words are thank you. Thank you for being our loyal readers and thank you Carmi, for being a dedicated editor, colleague, and valued friend.