A few days ago, I received an alert from Susan G. Komen Philadelphia’s Facebook feed: “Vivian Ortiz shared your event.” I clicked to read exactly what Vivian had posted: “Please join my team, Vivian’s Victory Squad, on Sunday, May 14 for the annual Susan G. Komen Philadelphia Race for the Cure. Your participation is extremely meaningful to me.”
I paused, silent, stunned, sad. I’ve seen hundreds of similar posts, and they always give me encouragement in knowing others are working with us to win the fight against breast cancer.
But this was different.
I knew Vivian didn’t post this herself — I had just visited her at home, on hospice. She couldn’t speak, Her only movement was the shallow rise and fall of her breaths. One week later, I lost this dear friend to metastatic breast cancer, and our cause lost yet another beautiful and irreplaceable warrior.
I very much want to use this space to write a loving tribute to Vivian — to paint a portrait of her selflessness and genuine love for every human being. I want to make sure everyone knows that she dedicated her life to our breast-cancer cause and was a champion for the Latino community. I want you all to understand that when Vivian said, “Don’t worry, I have your back,” she truly meant it — more strongly and more constantly than anyone ever could.
I want to fill pages doing this, and yet I hear in my heart Vivian saying, “Elaine, no, not for me.” I hear the voice of a woman whose dying wish was for Vivian’s Victory Squad to grow bigger and raise more money than ever for our Race for the Cure.
Yes, I write in tribute to Vivian, but most of all, I write because I promised her that I would do whatever it takes to ensure that she will keep on fighting — and continue to have a positive impact on all those who knew and loved her.
It both saddens and angers me when I hear that the fight against breast cancer is “well in hand.” Or that the cause “has enough money.” Or that there is “plenty of breast cancer awareness.”
If all this were true, then why isn’t Vivian still alive? Why will the United States lose approximately 40,000 people to breast cancer this year alone?
If the fight against breast cancer has all the support it needs, why are so many of you reading this with a heavy heart that comes from knowing the pain of losing someone to this horrible disease?
These misconceptions are doing considerable harm to the fight against breast cancer. They handicap organizations like ours — as well as researchers — from doing the work that saves lives. At a time when we are zeroing in on better treatments and moving the needle in terms of ensuring all women and men have access to quality breast-health services, we find ourselves having to battle not only breast cancer but also these misconceptions.
I’m not saying that Vivian lost her fight because one person who believed the breast-cancer cause had enough money didn’t donate. But I am certain that all those “non-donations” do add up, and if we don’t stop the trend, lives will be lost. Cures will go undiscovered.
As the ultimate tribute to my friend, as well as to all those lost to breast cancer, I ask you to please, do your part. Share their stories and set the record straight. If you want, register for our Race for the Cure as a member of Vivian’s Victory Squad — I know Vivian would love to have you on the team. Or donate to honor or celebrate someone else.
Take action for Vivian if you want. Do it for yourself, your daughters, granddaughters. For loved ones you’ve lost or for those facing life as a survivor. Do it so that you can say to all the women you love or will love, “Don’t worry, I have your back.”
Elaine I. Grobman is chief executive officer of Susan G. Komen Philadelphia.