Last spring, I received a call from Mary McCahan in the Lady Lion basketball office letting me know I needed to stop in to pick up a $900 donation to Pink Zone that had just arrived from some breast cancer survivors in the Lehigh Valley area.
This was a pleasant surprise, but also a bit perplexing. It came at a random time of year. Although we do fundraising year-round, the bulk of our donations tend to arrive between the months of October and February, during the Lady Lion season and the days and weeks surrounding the Pink Zone game.
When I picked up the check later that week, included with it was a note signed by Kathy, Eileen and the Lehigh Valley Sole Sistas.
Clearly, there was a story here.
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As luck would have it, Mary McCahan is also our fearless leader of the survivor committee for Pink Zone (very fitting because she is a breast cancer survivor herself. Let me also note here that we could not function without Mary’s leadership in this role).
I asked Mary to provide me with the full names and contact information for Kathy and Eileen. I needed to send these ladies a thank-you note and get to the bottom of this unexpected donation.
There’s a little part of me that always wanted to be an investigative reporter. Here I am living out the dream.
In October, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Kathy and Eileen when we converged at the annual Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition conference in Harrisburg. They were attending as breast cancer survivors, and I was there with other Pink Zone representatives promoting the 2014 game and continuing our work as a grass-roots partner of the PBCC — one of our six Pink Zone beneficiaries.
Within minutes of our interview, it was clear that these were two of the most compassionate, free-spirited and selfless women I have ever met.
Eileen Hayden was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. Kathy Clinton is a two-time fighter, diagnosed the first time in 2007, and then again in 2010. The two of them met while attending Support of Survivors meetings at Lehigh Valley Hospital. They then became volunteers for SOS to give back and help others who were newly diagnosed.
In 2011, the unbreakable bonds that had been formed between Kathy, Eileen and many women from SOS sparked the creation of the Lehigh Valley Sole Sistas.
This group’s mission is to complete 5K races together while raising money to help the cause and find a cure.
The Sole Sistas’ slogan reads, “We don’t discriminate ... all cancers suck!” They are recognizable at the starting line in their tie-dyed T-shirts meant to represent all the cancer colors.
These brave women somehow have the ability to laugh in the face of cancer. Their fearless enthusiasm is contagious.
In 2012, Kathy, Eileen and some of the other “Sistas” decided to take a field trip to Penn State to attend the Pink Zone basketball game for the first time.
From the moment they boarded that Fullington bus, they knew they were in for a memorable experience.
Kathy and Eileen both commented on “the awesome bus driver” that picked them up in Allentown. They could not get over the royal treatment they received throughout the day.
Eileen said, “we were treated like queens, like we’re special,” and then turned to me and said, “you’re the special ones who do this for the survivors.”
In true Sole Sista fashion, they were so struck by the celebratory nature of Pink Zone that they decided to pay it forward and give back. Two months before the 2013 Pink Zone game, Kathy and Eileen organized a raffle to raise money for Pink Zone.
The two of them put together an assortment of gift baskets and loaded them in their cars before heading to the pick-up location to once again board the Fullington buses.
As other breast cancer survivors and their families arrived for boarding, Kathy and Eileen called them over to their cars to show them the goods piled in their trunks. The two compared the experience to feeling like a couple of common criminals peddling knockoff designer handbags from their vehicles.
That’s when I chimed in and said, “You ladies are like the ‘Thelma and Louise’ of Pink Zone.” Suddenly there was dead silence during this interview and Kathy and Eileen stared at me with jaws dropped and eyes wide.
“Did you really just say that?” Kathy asked in astonishment. Then Eileen fiddled with her phone and pulled up a picture of the two of them in the stands at last year’s game.
Wouldn’t you know it — on the back of Kathy’s shirt was the name “Thelma” and on Eileen’s, “Louise” (well, technically, oui e – the “L” and “s” had fallen off in all the excitement of the day)!
Regardless, these two renegade survivors sold $900 worth of raffle tickets that day during the bus ride from Allentown to the Bryce Jordan Centre. Now it was all coming together for me.
In spite of the light-hearted reminiscing and jokes referencing 1990s feminism at its finest, my interview with Kathy and Eileen did have its serious moments. We certainly shared some laughs, along with a few tears. I was touched beyond words when they shared the reaction of a a seventh-grade boy in their group who said, “Mom, that was the best day of my life so far” after attending the 2013 game with his mother, who is a breast cancer survivor.
Like most people, Kathy and Eileen have friends who have lost the battle after a courageous fight. They can provide names of women who will not be able make it to the Pink Zone game this year because of their ongoing cancer treatments. It is interesting to learn how survivors really feel about Pink Zone.
Last year, for the first time, we sent solicitation letters to breast cancer survivors who attended the game. We had no idea how these would be received.
We certainly did not want anyone to feel obligated to send a donation, but we knew from experience, and from women like Kathy and Eileen, that many are looking for a way to give back. The response was overwhelming. More than $3,000 of our fundraising total in 2013 came from donations from breast cancer survivors.
Even more remarkable were some of the notes that accompanied these donations. My favorite was this one from a breast cancer survivor named Diane, “Last year was my first Pink Zone experience. It was overwhelming. Truly a great day. Thanks for all your hard work and dedication. May God bless you all.”
Pink Zone means different things to different people.
For those of us who work or volunteer within the organization, it is all about empowering survivors, raising awareness and finding a cure. For the Lady Lions, it is about drawing inspiration from the survivors in the stands on game day.
For basketball fans, it is about seeing that sea of pink in the BJC and celebrating the hundreds of survivors that command the court at halftime.
When I asked Kathy and Eileen what they are most excited about for Pink Zone 2014, they didn’t say anything about the items in the “swag bags” that we give to each registered survivor. They didn’t mention posing with the Penn State football players on the “Pink Carpet” as they arrive at the BJC. They did not utter a word about the dessert reception after the game, during which survivors get to mingle with the Lady Lions and the coaches.
Instead, they said they are most excited about how much money they were going to raise this year with their raffle.
To Kathy and Eileen, and many of the breast cancer survivors who attend the game, the excitement of Pink Zone goes way beyond the tangible gifts they receive.
It is something bigger than all of us and cannot be explained — only experienced.
Thank you to Kathy, Eileen, and all the survivors and their families who return each year for the Pink Zone game and continue to inspire us in ways we could have never imagined.
Miriam Powell is executive director of the Pennsylvania Pink Zone program at Penn State.