When Secaucus resident Sheila Menkes’ friend Annette Thomas died of cancer in 2000, she promised herself she would one day do something to raise awareness about cancer and the importance of early detection and early treatment.
“She was a very dear friend. It was always in my mind that I would some day do something to raise money and awareness about cancer and do it in her memory,” said Menkes, whose friend died at age 55. “If I can help one person, that’s all that matters.”
Each October, during breast cancer awareness month, Menkes adorns hundreds of trees throughout Secaucus with bright pink ribbons in a fulfillment of this vow.
Twenty-two students from the Clarendon and Huber St. schools assisted Menkes in her efforts, as did five of her friends, residents Louise Fox, Helen Carnegie, Sandy Share, Ethel Madden, and Maria Miranda.
Together they hung more than 250 ribbons on Paterson Plank Rd. and on the blocks surrounding the two elementary schools.
The effort is part of the Tie a Ribbon Campaign, a region-wide breast cancer awareness effort sponsored by the North Jersey affiliate of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a national nonprofit that raises money for cancer research. The organization’s North Jersey affiliate covers Hudson, Bergen, Essex, Morris, Somerset, Union, and Warren counties.
Tie a Ribbon Campaign
The Tie a Ribbon Campaign was first launched in North Jersey in 1999 and has since been picked up by several Komen affiliates across the nation.
Each eight-foot long, hot-pink ribbon is affixed with a double-sided card that provides information on breast self exams and mammograms. Some cards also bear the names of local women who have died from the disease. Beverly Cohen, communications manager for Komen’s local affiliate, estimates that about 15,000 ribbons have been tied to trees throughout northern New Jersey as part of the campaign this year.
“The point of the campaign is to encourage women to get a mammogram. It’s meant to highlight the importance of mammography in early detection [of breast cancer],” said Menkes, who has volunteered with Komen for the Cure for four years and has spearheaded the Tie a Ribbon Campaign in Secaucus for three.
The ribbons will remain in place through the end of the month.
Each year, about 182,460 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S., with more than 40,480 dying from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. (More than 1,990 men in the U.S. also are diagnosed with the disease annually.)
Although breast cancer is the most common form of cancer found among women, death rates have been declining since the early 1990s, which advocates attribute to early diagnoses, early treatment, and more effective treatments currently available.
Researchers are now investigating whether MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) can be effective in detecting some forms of breast cancer even earlier than traditional mammograms, particularly in women with a history of the disease. But, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), this research is still in its early phases.
“Mammograms are still the single best way that we have to detect breast cancer when it’s in its early and most treatable stages,” Cohen said. “Early detection and early treatment are what lead to better survival rates for women diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s why it’s so important for women to have regular mammograms. And that’s the message of the campaign.”
Mammograms on the decline
Despite the importance of mammograms, however, other studies indicate that a declining number of women over 40 get screened regularly.
According to NCI, the percentage of U.S. women aged 40 and older who had regular mammograms grew between 1987 and 2000. During this same period breast cancer death rates dropped – a drop which cancer survivors, advocates, doctors, and researches attribute to the increase in early detection and treatment.
After 2000 mammography rates leveled off nationally, then started to decline. Last year the scientific journal Cancer reported that by 2005 only 66 percent of women over 40 received regular mammograms, down from 70 percent in 2000. The fear is this drop will eventually lead to an increase of breast cancer deaths among women over 40.
Cancer offered several possible explanations for the decline, including higher co-pays for mammograms, more women without health insurance, lower reimbursements for doctors who perform mammograms, which in turn leads to fewer doctors offering mammograms.
“We are concerned about those numbers and there’s no question we certainly hope the Tie a Ribbon Campaign will help reverse that trend,” Cohen said.
“The hope is that women will see the ribbons and it will be a reminder that they need to have a mammogram,” Menkes said. “We hope they’ll say, ‘Oh, I need to schedule an appointment,’ or ‘Oh, it’s time for my annual mammogram.'”
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