Breast Cancer Hits Home for Police Officer

October 12, 2017 | by Abe Rosenberg

Chris and Heather Pink Patch Project | City of Hope Sgt. Chris Hughes and his wife, Heather

Sgt. Chris Hughes still can't get over the irony.

About a year ago he read on social media that many police departments in California were signing up for the Pink Patch Project, a unique way to raise awareness about breast cancer and collect money to fight it. Agencies create pink versions of their regular uniform patches, wear them on patrol and also offer them for sale, with proceeds donated to various cancer organizations, including City of Hope.

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.
 
Barely three months later Chris's wife Heather was diagnosed with breast cancer. She would need surgery. Soon.
 
“It very quickly turned things upside down for us,” said Heather, a registered nurse. “It's the kind of diagnosis that can totally consume you. And it's scary, even for someone like me who's worked in intensive care units for 15 years.”
 
But that's also when the Pink Patch Project suddenly transcended its original dual roles of education and fundraising to become a critical source of support for the Hughes family.


“I didn't expect that,” Chris said.

 

Patches Pink Patch Project | City of Hope In the days before Heather's surgery, dozens of pink patches started arriving from around the country.
“I went on our PPP Administrators Facebook page – the place where we talk nuts-and-bolts, like where to buy the patches, or how to schedule an event. And I mentioned what Heather and I were going through. Well, seems I hit a nerve out there. Suddenly all this love starts pouring in. People sharing their own stories, sending messages of encouragement, checking in regularly with 'Hey, how's it going?' emails. It was amazing.”

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.”

 

Beyond Expectations

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

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