She was told only that her mother was sick, but even as a 5-year-old, Bria Johnson knew it had to be a serious illness. “I remember she started losing her hair,” Johnson recalled of seeing her mother’s condition worsen.
Johnson learned that the illness was breast cancer, and that the loss of hair was a side effect of powerful chemotherapy drugs. Over the next seven years, she watched her mother wage a courageous battle against the disease, which would go into remission, only to come back and spread to the brain. Her mother passed away in 2007, when Johnson was only 11.
That was the poignant story Johnson, now a biomedical engineering major at the University of Miami, shared with an audience of about 200 people, including representatives of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, who gathered on UM’s Lakeside Patio on Monday for a ceremony that illuminated the iconic Cobb Fountain in pink to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month and honor those who have been affected by the dreadful disease.
The UM chapter of Zeta Tau Alpha sorority, which partners with the American Cancer Society, the NFL, and Bright Pink to raise breast cancer awareness, co-sponsored the event, which included remarks by UM President Julio Frenk and his wife, Dr. Felicia Knaul, a health economist who is also a breast cancer survivor.
Representatives from the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Herbert Wellness Center passed out information pamphlets on breast cancer, and ZTA sisters, many of them wearing pink attire, passed out Think Pink ribbons and glow sticks, turning the Lakeside Patio into a sea of pink.
Johnson was one of two students who spoke at the event. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of my mother,” she said. “She always told me, ‘Make a difference, or don’t make anything at all.’ ”
Inspired by her mother’s advice and battle against breast cancer, Johnson plans to study pharmacology in hopes of one day developing a drug that will cure the most common cancer among women in the United States, other than skin cancer. “I remember my mom taking all sorts of medications but not really getting any better,” said Johnson, “and that’s partly why I want to go into pharmacology.”
President Frenk urged men to become “part of the solution” in fighting breast cancer and to be more supportive of women who are fighting the disease. A physician and public health specialist, he said that when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 41 while living in Mexico, he gained an entirely new perspective on the disease—from studying health conditions to being impacted by one.
Knaul, a professor of public health sciences at the Miller School of Medicine and director of the Miami Institute for the Americas, documented her own personal and professional experience with breast cancer in the book Beauty Without the Breast. At the fountain lighting ceremony, she noted that breast cancer is the No. 2 killer of women between the ages of 30 and 54 in Mexico.
She credits her first baseline mammogram for catching the disease early and allowing her to get treatment in time. But while early detection remains an effective weapon in fighting the disease, many women, she said, are afraid to even get screened for fear of hearing they have breast cancer and being rejected by the community or a boyfriend. But advocacy, Knaul explained, is helping to change the face of the disease, and the pink ribbons worn by men and women around the world demonstrate “a message of healing, a message of hope.”
Knaul then led a countdown that culminated in the Cobb Fountain being illuminated in pink. It is one of six UM landmarks that have been “pinked out” this month in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The University of Miami sign at Ponce de Leon Boulevard and Stanford Drive, the exterior of the BankUnited Center, and the fountains at the School of Business Administration, Ashe Building, and Merrick Building all are being bathed in pink light this month.
ZTA will host a variety of on-campus activities throughout the week of October 12 as part of its official Think Pink Week. Events will include tabling in the University Center breezeway with breast cancer awareness ribbons and self-examination materials, Survivor Night, and a ceremony in which a large pink ribbon will be placed on the U statue.