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Globe & Mail - Facts and Arguments #2

Number 1 - ...

A different kind of pin-up calendar
Published in the Globe and Mail, Wednesday, December 4, 2002

It's a calendar that helps increase understanding of breast health, using education to overcome the fear that all breast owners know.

I keep a photo hanging in my home office that was taken on a cold, snowy January day in 2001, just as the sun was going down on Guelph Lake; it captures a pivotal, life-defining moment for me.

My dog Stew is standing, with her tongue hanging out, facing the setting sun. The long, violet shadows of myself and my friend Tannis extend over and behind her. You can tell by the shadow that I am the one taking the photo. Tannis has her arms raised over her head, cheering. The picture captures the beginning of an intensely creative period for us both, and a pivotal moment in my life.

Two days earlier, my dog and I had come within a few millimetres of certain death when we tried to cross a busy street and blindly stepped into the path of an oncoming car. (I wrote about it in a Facts & Arguments essay, published March 7, 2001). The vehicle smacked Stew's nose as it sped by, but I was untouched -- on the surface, at least. Inside, however, something had shifted, awoken.

In the days to follow, I was brimming with excitement, energy and a desire to do something marvellous, something meaningful. "I am ready," I told Tannis as we stood by the frozen lake, "to do something monumental. I want to take my 40-odd years of life experience and create something that will benefit women everywhere."

In a wink, ideas flew like snowflakes in the wind. We leapt from the vague notion of doing something significant for women to a specific proposal: publishing a calendar to promote awareness and understanding of breast health. Then I took the photo to cement that moment in time.

My decision to focus on breast health was not motivated by any personal experience with breast cancer. I am not a breast cancer survivor, nor is anyone in my immediate family. But that's not to say my family history wasn't a compelling factor. My parents, both sets of grandparents and an assortment of aunts and uncles all died from an array of diseases, often in the prime of their lives. That grim legacy inspires me to put energy into my own physical, spiritual and emotional health in the hope that I can break the family pattern.

But while breast cancer hasn't been part of my personal history, it's become an inescapable part of our culture. The many awareness-raising campaigns encouraged me to start wearing pink ribbons, but I found most available information on the subject to be confusing and fear-based. There's one statistic in particular that gets thrown around like confetti at a wedding -- the one that says one in nine Canadian women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. The enormity of that number is almost impossible to grasp. "One in nine?" I thought. "I know nine women!"

I am very attached to my breasts. And given that having breasts is the No. 1 qualifier to be a candidate for breast cancer, I noticed myself fearing that sooner or later, I would come face-to-face with this statistic.

My women friends seemed to be in the same boat. Lots of awareness and fear with too little practical, understandable and pro-active information to help quell that fear and turn awareness into action.

And so, using myself and my own community of women as an example, I decided to create a wall calendar that would help increase our understanding of breast health, using education to overcome the fear that all breast owners know.

Simple idea. Powerful possibilities.

Within four days, I had lined up the services of graphic designer Gareth Lind and fine art photographer Melanie Gillis, both of whom, as chance would have it, were neighbours of mine. Seven months later, we had completed the design and content and were ready to go to press. The Breast of Canada calendar was born.

But my significant idea came with a hefty price tag. At the conclusion of the 2002 calendar season, I had lost $50,000. I'd had too little time to address all the marketing hurdles involved and was left with 16,000 unsold calendars.

I spent much of my Christmas vacation last year staring silently at burning fire logs and licking my wounds. Yet, despite having lost all my money, I hadn't lost the creative fire that was sparked on that snowy day. And I kept looking at that photo.

I started to think that perhaps the only way out of this self-made mess was to dig in deeper. Besides, I had 16,000 calendars that weren't helping anyone by sitting in my storage space. So I dragged my beaten butt back to my cramped office in search of solutions.

The minute I moved forward, serendipity kicked in. I was stopped in a grocery store by a breast cancer survivor who told me how profoundly moving she found the calendar and how vitally important it was for women and their families to be reminded about breast health on a daily basis. Then she hugged me.

I started giving the leftover calendars away -- to women's groups, university classes, anyone who welcomed one and recognized the importance of its message. And every time I doubted my direction, someone else would write me, stop me on the street or call to share tales about how the calendar had affected their life.

In March, I added a 2003 order form to every calendar I gave away. Lo and behold, orders started coming back with cheques and credit card numbers enclosed. By June, I had pre-sold more than 2,000 calendars -- just enough for me to pay for the print run of next year's edition.

It's now been 23 months since that snowy day and I am in the throes of distributing the second annual Breast of Canada calendar in support of breast health and breast-cancer prevention to more than 200 retail outlets across the country.

My web page has received more than a million hits in 15 months and feedback about the project is overwhelmingly positive. (Please visit Breast of Canada is inspiring conversations about breast health, breast cancer, body image, sexuality and feminism around dinner tables, in offices and classrooms. And if people are talking about it, then I know the calendar has done its job. The grip of fear has been loosened in many homes.

Tannis came to my home for a visit not long ago. I showed her the picture. We both raised our arms and cheered.

Sue Richards lives in Guelph, Ont.

Contact Sue Richards at [email protected]

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