Breast Cancer Hits Home for Police Officer
October 12, 2017 | by Abe Rosenberg
Sgt. Chris Hughes still can't get over the irony.
It sounded like a great idea, so Hughes, a 16-year veteran of the Palos Park, Illinois, police department, pitched it to his chief. “After all,” he said, “we all have moms, wives, daughters. We should do this.”
The chief loved it, and he put Hughes in charge.
“I didn't expect that,” Chris said.
Not to mention those patches.
“A couple of days before the surgery,” Chris continued, “I hinted how great it would be for Heather to receive a few pink patches from folks. Well, dozens came in, from people we don't even know. So did T-shirts, challenge coins, all sorts of things. It really meant a lot to us.”
In ways large and small, the Pink Patch Project has meant a lot to quite a number of people, and it's happened in a relatively short time.
The original idea was conceived in 2013 by a cancer survivor at the Seal Beach, California, police department. Then, in 2015, Irwindale's PD, hoping to raise money for its neighbor, City of Hope, adopted the concept.
They succeeded beyond expectations.
“Our goal was to collect $10,000,” said Sgt. Rudy Gatto, who runs the Irwindale program. “We raised twice that amount.”
Gatto, a social media-savvy public information officer, began trumpeting that success online, and he pitched the Pink Patch idea to the Los Angeles County Police Chiefs Association, expanding the program to another 20 agencies.
And that was just the beginning.
As of August 2017, over 200 public safety agencies – inside and outside California – have “gone Pink,” raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for breast cancer research and treatment, much of it going to City of Hope, though each department is free to partner with any cancer institution it chooses.
The dollars are important, Gatto said. But the dialogues may be Pink Patch Project's greatest impact. The patches are initiating conversations that might otherwise never take place.
“I'll be at the drive-thru, grabbing dinner,” Gatto said, “and the checkout person will spot my pink patch. All of a sudden the whole staff is squeezing into the window, telling me how cool it is, laughing, crying, sharing stories about their moms, their sisters, friends with cancer.
“Cancer levels the playing field. I mean, I've discussed breast cancer with crime suspects who notice the patch and start asking questions! It's become such a humanizing thing. We get reminded that everybody has a story, whatever their station in life. And then people see us as more than cops, as human beings with families, just like them. We're making such amazing connections, it gives you goosebumps.”
And once those connections are made, opportunities are created to educate, and to stress the two most important facts about breast cancer:
Early detection is key
The No. 1 tool for catching breast cancer early is the mammogram. It can find tumors up to two years before you can feel them. Although most experts recommend mammograms beginning at age 40, don't let the numbers stop you.
“Be your own advocate,” said Heather, who was only 37 when her breast cancer was discovered. She'd insisted on an early mammogram, against her doctors' advice, because her mother and two aunts had all developed cancer. (For that reason she also went through genetic testing, which came back negative). “If I'd waited another three years, who knows?”
Surgical techniques are better than ever
Surgical techniques for removing cancer cells keep getting better, reconstruction procedures have vastly improved, and frequently everything can be done in a single operation.
Heather chose a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. She's now cancer free, doing well, and the family (they have three daughters) is returning to normal.
“Sure, we had our rock bottom, 'What are we gonna do?' moments,” she said. “But I'm feeling pretty good now, and the Pink Patch Project gives me this opportunity to share my story and perhaps help others.”
Husband Chris meantime, continues to spread the word every day on patrol. Like so many of his colleagues for whom the alpha male persona is typically a way of life, he's discovered the power of this unlikely patch of pink, how it draws people in, how it breaks the ice, and inspires smiles as well as tears.
“Hey, everybody loves it!” he said.
To learn more about the Pink Patch Project, visit CityofHope.org/pinkpatchproject.
, Thank you for supporting our mission of eliminating cancer and other life-threatening diseases! Make sure to check your inbox from time to time for the latest City of Hope updates and breakthroughs.
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