When Sharon Clark took over as postmaster in Carl Junction in 2008, she was already a two-time cancer survivor, including having gone through a bout with breast cancer more than two decades earlier.
But Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which launched nationally in the mid-1980s, wasn’t widely recognized in Southwest Missouri then, she said.
“There was no Paint the Town Pink, there was no breast cancer stamp,” said Clark, who eventually led the Carl Junction post office to at least three first-place finishes in a national breast cancer stamp-selling contest before her retirement in 2016. “You just barely talked about breast cancer — and then, it just exploded.”
Today, it’s difficult to go anywhere in the region — especially during October — without seeing pink everywhere in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which was founded to promote not only awareness of the disease, but also the importance of mammograms and breast self-exams as key to early detection. Local breast cancer survivors say that even after 34 years of breast cancer awareness campaigns across the country, both of those components — awareness and education — are still critically important to keeping women and men healthy.
“I think there’s a need for awareness because still to this day, there are people who have their head buried in the sand, or they say, ‘I’m not 40 yet, so I don’t need to worry about it,’ or, ‘It hasn’t affected my family,’” said Clark, who serves as president of the Hope4You Breast Cancer Foundation.
‘It makes a difference’
Kristi Seibert, outreach director for the Breast Cancer Foundation of the Ozarks, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, a time when Breast Cancer Awareness Month wasn’t as prevalent in this area.
“The whole ‘pink’ thing — it was kind of like, ‘Ew,’” she said. “But I have watched every national sports team go from not having pink games and pink shoes and college teams not having pink games to everybody does that now.”
Among the local teams now celebrating pink in October is Carl Junction. The annual “pink games” were launched several years ago by Sarah Wall, a former Carl Junction volleyball coach and currently an assistant coach at Pittsburg (Kansas) State University.
The Carl Junction team started with a Pink Night that “just got bigger and better” over the years through volunteer help and parent involvement, said Wall, who had found a noncancerous lump in one of her breasts at age 18. The fundraisers have generated thousands of dollars for Hope4You.
“Hopefully we’ve reached out and touched some kids, given them some knowledge to encourage prevention more than anything,” she said. “It’s my goal to never see a friend or family member or former student have to suffer with that. The more knowledge we have, the better the prevention is.”
Clark believes many awareness and education campaigns today should be centered on mammograms — how they work, where they can be done, who should receive them and what resources are available to help women pay for them — to help women and physicians find cancers early.
“Early detection is key to beating this dreadful C-word,” she said.
The American Cancer Society recommends that women with an average risk of breast cancer begin receiving mammograms yearly at age 45 and then every other year after they turn 55. Several organizations, including the Joplin-based Hope4You and the Springfield-based Breast Cancer Foundation of the Ozarks, offer free or low-cost mammograms to uninsured or underinsured women.
Clark said such an awareness campaign could be just the push someone needs to schedule a mammogram. She remembers one particularly fruitful result in Carl Junction years ago.
“I had two ladies come into the post office and say, ‘Thanks for making me aware I hadn’t had my mammogram,’” she said. “I’ve always said that if it reaches just one person, it makes a difference. It’s worth it all.”
‘Knowledge is power’
Like others, Seibert believes that awareness and education are still necessary parts of October campaigns against breast cancer because they force people to take charge of their health.
“I think individuals go through life and want to hide their head in the sand about their own mortality and physical health,” she said. “I do believe in keeping it out there. I believe that knowledge is power.”
The Breast Cancer Foundation of the Ozarks works year-round to get that knowledge out to people, Seibert said. The organization also offers a client assistance program for patients needing help with nonclinical bills such as rent or utilities, a children’s Christmas program, support groups and free prostheses and bras, she said.
“What we do is a constant educational process,” she said. “It is a constant because breast cancer diagnoses happen year-round. To me, it just isn’t about October.”
It’s also personal for so many cancer survivors.
As president of Hope4You, Clark fills a position once occupied by Sarah Burkybile, a Joplin resident who died at the age of 31 in August 2012 following a battle with breast cancer. Awareness was at the center of Burkybile’s mission, other survivors said following her death.
“It really didn’t become about Sarah,” physician Kim Sanders told the Globe in September 2012. “She wanted to make young women aware it could happen to them.”
Breast cancer survivors have credited Burkybile with renewing awareness of the disease locally. But today, Clark can’t help but think that perhaps advocates should have launched their awareness campaign in Southwest Missouri long before Burkybile took up the mantle.
It’s part of what drives her on as she carries forward the foundation that was so near and dear to Burkybile’s heart. It’s why, she says, breast cancer awareness is still critically important.
“If we had been doing this 30 years ago, maybe Sarah would still be here,” Clark said. “I want to prevent any more Sarah Burkybiles.”