Millions say days of denial are over for breast cancer


Washington -- Outside the White House, a noisy parade of women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in the bright sun. Waving placards and wearing T-shirts that proclaimed their cause, they shouted that they wanted a cure for breast cancer and they wanted it now.

The marchers followed a flatbed truck that carried hundreds of boxes containing 2.6 million signatures from all over the United States echoing that demand. The women, breast cancer survivors from every state, were on their way to the Ellipse behind the White House for the rally that would culminate their protest.

Husbands and friends marched with them. Some of their children snaked through the crowd on roller skates. A trolley carried those too weak to walk.

Two years ago, women marching to protest the toll of breast cancer likewise carried boxes of petitions to the White House. No one would meet them -- or even acknowledge them -- and so they lifted the heavy boxes over the fence around the White House and laughed ruefully as they imagined the guards carting them straight to the garbage.

The difference yesterday was that while these women marched, some of their number were inside that fence, inside the White House, inside the government.

In the East Room, women in power suits and wearing the pink ribbons that are the reminder of this movement were greeted by President Clinton, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.

This time, the administration welcomed the boxes of petitions stacked pyramid-style behind them on the podium. And the administration was not just listening, but also was adding its voice to those of the women whose bundled letters where tied with pink ribbons.

"This president is committed to working tirelessly, persistently and relentlessly against the enemy known as breast cancer," said Hillary Rodham Clinton, "and to doing all we can to end this epidemic."

"No more euphemisms, no more denial. Breast cancer is no longer unfit for polite conversation," said Ms. Shalala. "Every woman is at risk. This year, we will lose 46,000 women to this disease."

Their remarks were greeted by ovations from more than 200 women jammed into the East Room. When the women finally gave up the podium to Clinton, he lamented the cost breast cancer has levied -- more than $6 billion in health care services and untold human heartbreak.

"We spend so much money picking up the pieces of broken lives when we could spend so little money to save them," said Clinton, whose mother is a breast cancer survivor. He pointed to $600 million in his budget to fight the disease, compared with $90 million two years ago. He promised a blue-ribbon committee headed by Ms. Shalala to develop a national action plan.

Both groups of women -- those rallying in tennis shoes on the Ellipse and those standing beside Clinton as he signed a document declaring today National Mammography Day -- were linked by more than their cause. Through each group vibrated a compelling energy born of joy, grief and anger.

In the East Room, a woman wore a striking red hat. On the Ellipse, another wore a purple bandanna. Each hid the ravages of chemotherapy. But with their robust applause and their joyful voices, these women celebrated themselves as breast cancer survivors, not victims.

Hillary Rodham Clinton's voice broke as she introduced the young husband and small son of a friend who died this summer of breast cancer. The women marchers carried placards in tribute to loved ones who had died.

In the East Room, Frances Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition and a breast cancer survivor, spoke, and her voice quaked with rage as she said: "We don't know what causes breast cancer. We don't know how to cure it. And we don't know what to tell our daughters to do to prevent this disease."

At the rally, news commentator and survivor Linda Ellerbee shouted: "We are not going to go away, be quiet or die politely. We can't make them find a cure, but we are making sure they never ignore us again."

Breast cancer will strike one in seven women in this country. A generation ago, it was only one in 14. Every statistic is someone's mother, someone's daughter, someone's friend. None of us will escape the grief. None of us, the anger.

But we are inside the fence now, inside the White House. And that is cause for some joy.

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