Think Pink: How a Daughter's Love Became a Breast Cancer Movement
After her mother died of breast cancer at 46, Ellese Meyer came up with a bright idea to raise money for other young women with breast cancer — and began a "Pink Out" tradition that's since taken over high school football stadiums across Pennsylvania.
By Allison Takeda
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Ellese Meyer’s mother, Terri, didn’t get to carry out the work she started in founding the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation. So Ellese is doing it for her.
Ellese was in sixth grade when her mom was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Terri, then in her late thirties, had lost her own mother to breast cancer years before. Determined not to let the cancer take anything else away from her, she fought back hard — and won. Twelve months, one surgery, and several rounds of chemotherapy after her diagnosis, Terri was cancer-free. And she stayed that way for three years.
In 2007, however, the cancer came back, this time more aggressively. Over the next several months, it spread to her brain, bones, lungs, and liver.
“That recurrence diagnosis was really devastating for the family,” says Ellese’s dad, David. “We thought we had beaten it.”
Terri was intent on beating it again. She went after the tumors with radiation, five different chemotherapy agents, clinical trials, and hip-replacement surgery. She even traveled out of state to research other options. But over time, both the cancer and the treatment took its toll.
“She battled as hard as she could,” Ellese says in the latest episode ofEveryday Health, airing Oct. 29 or 30 on your local ABC station. “It’s hard to see that type of struggle from someone who is your caretaker. She was my best friend. I could talk to her about anything.”
Sadly, Terri passed away in 2009, just a couple of months before Ellese’s senior year at Mt. Lebanon High School in Pittsburgh, Pa. She was 46.
But her community’s fight against breast cancer was only just beginning.
The Birth of a Movement
According to the Young Survival Coalition, an organization dedicated to helping young women with breast cancer, there are currently more than 250,000 women in the United States who were diagnosed with the disease before age 40. And though breast cancer risk is significantly higher after age 55, some 18,600 women under 45 are diagnosed annually.
Terri’s family history put her at higher risk for developing breast cancer — having a mother, sister, or daughter with the disease about doubles a woman’s own risk — but even healthy young women with no family history can be affected.
Wanting to share her experience as a young mother with breast cancer so that others could learn and benefit from it, Terri started meeting regularly with a group of fellow patients.
“It started out as small coffee talks — woman to woman, no doctors involved,” Ellese explains. “It was just a group of women who were younger than 40 or in their early forties when they were diagnosed with breast cancer. They talked about their kids, their lives, the problems they were having.”
Those intimate chats soon gave way to something bigger. In 2005, in an effort to spread the word about breast cancer beyond their little group, Terri’s friend Jennifer Kehm started the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation with Lisa Edmonds. The idea was to give other young women the support and information that Terri and Jennifer had gotten through their group coffee talks. Terri was a dedicated volunteer for the organization from the very beginning — she was passionate about finding ways to help women and their families cope with a breast cancer diagnosis.
“Their main goal is to educate women under 40 about the risks of breast cancer — basically to say, ‘Even though you’re young, you can still get this,’” Ellese says of the foundation. “But they also raise money to help families with groceries and other necessities. These women are young. They have kids. They have to go on with their lives.”
Honoring Her Mother
Ellese got involved with the foundation after Terri’s death in 2009. “I didn’t want to be stuck in a dark place,” she says. “I wanted to do something to honor her, to take my grief in a different direction and make it more of a positive thing.”
Knowing what those intimate coffee chats had meant to her mother, Ellese came up with the idea for an event to raise money for the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation: She wanted to turn her high school football stadium pink.
“It was just this weird idea I had suddenly,” she says. “And it became this huge thing.”
Her cheerleading coach didn’t think it was weird. And neither did the Mt. Lebanon athletic director. He e-mailed the idea to every school in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League — 42 of which signed on to turn their stadiums pink for breast cancer awareness, too.
The first Pink Out event took place on Oct. 30, 2009, just four months after Terri’s death. High schools all over the state participated, honoring their own local survivors and lost loved ones. But perhaps no school embraced it as much as Mt. Lebanon.
On the night of the Pink Out, the football players wore pink on their helmets, the cheerleaders (including Ellese, who was the squad’s captain) waved pink pom poms, the band flew pink flags, and the crowd filled the bleachers decked out in matching pink T-shirts. It was a massive success: In just one night, the community raised more than ,000 for the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation. The only thing that could have made it better was Terri’s presence.
Now in its third year, the Pink Out has become a beloved tradition among high schools in Western Pennsylvania. Ellese is 19 and in college but goes back to her alma mater every October to help turn the stadium pink.
“I would love to see it continue,” she says. “It just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
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