Pink Zone's Got Game
It’s been 11 years, but Mary McCahan can still look at a picture of the swarm of survivors and family members on the court at halftime of the first Think Pink Lady Lions basketball game and pick herself out of the crowd.
“It’s one of those things that you just don’t forget,” says McCahan. “You’re standing on the floor and you’re among this group of women, and some men, who have gone through breast cancer, and you look in the stands and you see the people standing and clapping…”
The mother of two and grandmother of three pauses, fighting back tears of emotion as she recalls the faces of her husband and two daughters, along with the constant support of her sister during her battle with the disease 17 years ago. “The family members are just as thrilled to see the survivors on the floor,” she says, her voice a whisper.
“It’s just a great time. It’s really hard to explain.”
McCahan is one of the original inspirations for the pink-tinged game that has become a decade-long tradition, a nonprofit organization and has raised $1.6 million to help the breast cancer cause. She was diagnosed in 2000 and started working in the Lady Lions basketball office as an administrative assistant in 2002, just a year into her five-year prescription of Tamoxifen, the drug routinely used to prevent a recurrence of the disease.
In the spring of 2006, the Big Ten Conference announced it was giving each women’s basketball team money to invest in an effort to increase attendance. “All we had to do was present a paragraph proposal of what we were going to do with this $5,000 and say how it would help our attendance,” remembers Jenn James, assistant athletic director for women’s basketball at Penn State and current Pink Zone board member. “Former Coach [Rene] Portland said, ‘Look, I don’t want to buy $5,000 worth of T-shirts and give them away; let’s really do something unique and different.’”
With McCahan on their minds, along with former North Carolina State women’s basketball coach Kay Yow’s battle with breast cancer in the public eye, the Lady Lions decided to do something that had never been done before.
“We were the very first team in the country to wear pink uniforms,” James says of that first Think Pink game, played on Feb. 4, 2007. “It was a secret. We knew internally from planning it, but we really didn’t have members from the community helping us out. When we ran out and debuted those pink uniforms, the crowd went nuts.”
That year the team’s efforts to raise awareness also raised $20,000 for breast cancer research and support services, and they honored 30 survivors, including McCahan, during the game.
It was a single event that quickly became an annual tradition, with fundraising efforts spreading out to other Penn State teams, area businesses and community groups. For the first five years, the Lady Lions basketball office handled the fundraising and planned the game, but it eventually became too much to juggle.
So six years ago the Think Pink initiative became The Pennsylvania Pink Zone, an official nonprofit organization with a volunteer board, six annual beneficiaries and a paid executive director, Erin Tench, who’s tasked with overseeing it all. It’s a big job, but Tench has plenty of inspiration from which to draw.
“The cause is close to me... Three very strong women in my life and who have impacted me in a great way have all had breast cancer, so it seemed like a good cause to champion.”
“The cause is close to me,” says Tench, who came on board in May 2016. “My grandmother passed away from breast cancer when I was in high school. And my mother-in-law was diagnosed when my husband and I started dating. Then my best friend was diagnosed two years ago. She’s cancer free now, but she got a double mastectomy. So three very strong women in my life and who have impacted me in a great way have all had breast cancer, so it seemed like a good cause to champion.”
That cause is a year-round endeavor, with area fundraising efforts stepping up in October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and then again as game day draws near every winter. There are tons of smaller drives that stretch across campus and beyond, from the women’s gymnastics team hosting a Flip For the Cure meet on Feb. 4 to the Corner Room and Penn State Student Book Store raising donations through “Paint the Corner Pink” ribbon sales.
“We have some really good partners who are fundraising for us,” Tench says. “And Penn State students are involved as well, and they usually raise about $20,000 each year.”
The funds are dispersed annually as needed to six beneficiaries: Mount Nittany Medical Center, Penn State Cancer Institute, Kay Yow Cancer Fund, PA Breast Cancer Coalition, J. C. Blair Memorial Hospital, and Geisinger-Lewistown Hospital. Over the years, the money has gone toward, among other things: education, screening and legislative work through the PA Breast Cancer Coalition; breast cancer research through the Kay Yow Cancer Fund; state-of-the-art mammography equipment and software at the hospitals; the Lady Lion Basketball Cancer Resource Center in the Lance and Ellen Shaner Cancer Pavilion; and breast health navigators in both the Mount Nittany and J.C. Blair hospitals.
“The breast health navigator is a position that was started and fully funded by Pink Zone at Mount Nittany,” Tench says. “She meets with recently diagnosed breast cancer patients and helps them with whatever they might need.”
And then there’s the game itself, now called the Play4Kay Game, which is much, much more than a sporting event.
“It’s a great celebration for [survivors],” Tench says of the game, for which survivors are treated to four free tickets plus more at a discounted rate, along with a swag bag of goodies, a T-shirt and a post-game reception complete with pink carpet treatment, mingling with Penn State football players and Lady Lion basketball players, and much more.
“We were the very first team in the country to wear pink uniforms. It was a secret… When we ran out and debuted those pink uniforms, the crowd went nuts.” —Jenn James
“We’re truly invested in making sure that they’re enjoying themselves and being celebrated,” James says. Pink Zone also offers free transportation to survivors and their entourages who are coming from out of town. This year buses are set to bring survivors to State College from 20 cities across Pennsylvania.
This year McCahan will serve as Honorary Coach of the Lady Lions.And whether they win or lose, the highlight of the event for most comes at halftime, when the game’s real winners are paraded onto the court to celebrate their survivorship and acknowledge those who’ve stood by them through the fight. Last year there were more than 640 survivors, each holding up a sign that included how long they’d been a survivor.
“I’ve seen photos of a woman with a ‘30 years’ sign next to someone whose sign said ‘10 days,’” Tench says. “We add up the years and announce how many survivors are on the floor and how many years of survivorship they have together. It’s an amazing moment.”
Organizers are hoping for 700 survivors and 15,000 in attendance at this year’s game against Michigan on Feb. 26 at the Bryce Jordan Center. Pink Zone’s fundraising goal this year is $250,000, and a big chunk of that is dependent on ticket sales.
And that initial goal of the seed money from the Big Ten Conference, to drive up attendance at women’s basketball games? It did much more than that.
“We’ve had some survivors become season ticket holders; some have brought their daughters to our summer camp,” James says. “A lot of these women, they’re not sports fans. But they become Lady Lions fans.”
And the feeling, James says, is definitely mutual.
“Our whole day is meant to celebrate survivors,” she says. “It’s very, very close to my heart.” •SCM
A Caring Compass
Mount Nittany Medical Center’s breast health navigator clears the path for cancer patients
“My role is to remove barriers to care,” says Cygan, the breast health navigator for Mount Nittany Medical Center. “So what that looks like is removing anything that might get in the way of diagnosis, treatment or even survivorship.”
Cygan’s role at the hospital is a full-time position created and funded by money raised through The Pennsylvania Pink Zone, and in the three years she has been there, she’s become an indispensible asset to those battling the disease in the Centre Region.
“When something’s on your mind and you’re worried about it, and you’re also trying to take in all this new information, it’s really hard. So I tell them, ‘These are all the things I can do, but tell me what’s on your mind right now so we can get that off your plate so you can focus on what’s important.’ Because if it’s something I can fix, if it’s finances and we’re able to help them, then they’re open to hearing what’s going on, ‘What do I have, what are my choices?’” she says. “Anxiety can be a huge barrier.”
What Cygan can do specifically is help survivors who are having trouble paying bills, getting adequate transportation to treatments, educating themselves and understanding their options, or even keeping up with the routine tasks of life when they’re sick from the side effects of treatment.
“We have patients who travel 50 miles one way for treatment, and radiation can be every day for six weeks. So if you think about that mileage and that commitment, several barriers are attached to that.
Someone’s car may need tires, so we help with that. Someone may not have the gas money, so we help with that. Or the very worst is when someone doesn’t have a car,” says Cygan, who is referred to patients by surgeons, oncologists and professionals at the Mount Nittany Breast Care Center as well as by friends or family members of patients or former patients.
Sometimes patients have insurance plans with deductibles they have difficulty paying while also keeping up with monthly bills. In that case, Cygan works with the Mount Nittany Health Foundation to help offset the costs and ease that burden.
“This position to me is a position of honor,” says Cygan, who previously worked in home health care as a hospice nurse. “To be chosen for this position is a big deal, it’s a huge responsibility. As I gather my thoughts to come to work I’m always thinking, ‘Please, please put me in the right place to do the best thing for someone today.’ And I can go home every day knowing I’ve done that.”
She says the Pink Zone has enabled her to be a gift to those facing some of their darkest days.
“When I introduce myself to patients and tell them all the things I’m going to do, they’re probably thinking, ‘How much is this going to cost me?’ And I get to say, ‘There’s no charge for my service.
Pennsylvania Pink Zone and Mount Nittany Health Foundation have provided this service,’” she says.
As breast health navigator, Cygan sometimes sees women who are having a biopsy or mammogram scare that ends up being nothing more than a few days of anxiety. But her role is just as comforting to those walking the path of the unknown.
“I may meet you and you do not have breast cancer. You’re just going through a biopsy, but that can be just as scary as if you did,” she says. “If they are positive with breast cancer I begin to follow them and anticipate questions they might have.”
And the survivors she follows inspire her as much as she helps them.
“It’s very enriching. One of the things I see is almost all my patients [in the beginning] are terrified to the point of tears. I watch them gain knowledge, gain strength, gain support, and then turn around at the end and help others,” she says. “It happens every time.”