In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re taking a moment to celebrate the women who are making waves by fostering progress and inclusiveness in their communities. And there’s no one that has rocked the boat of breast health and self-awareness quite like Bright Pink founder and chairman of the board Lindsay Avner.
According to the CDC, breast cancer (aside from skin cancer) is the most common cancer to affect American women. Bright Pink’s mission is to save women’s lives from breast and ovarian cancer by empowering them to live proactively at a young age. The focus is on education, health, and most importantly, preventative action.
The story behind why the organization came to be is extremely personal, but Lindsay doesn’t shy away from the details. “I actually have a really strong family history of both breast and ovarian cancer. My grandmother and my great grandmother, both of whom I’m named after, lost their battles to breast cancer 6 days apart, so at 39 and 58. My mom is a 24-year breast, 23-year ovarian cancer survivor. In addition, there are 8 other women that had been affected in our broader family ecosystem … growing up I always felt as though in some ways it was only a matter of time before this affected me,” Lindsay says.
And so at the age of 22, right after graduating from the University of Michigan, Lindsay began genetic testing and discovered that she carried the BRCA1 gene mutation, indicating she had “up to an 87 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer and up to a 54 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer.” Though she felt thankful for the medical resources she had, she says, “one thing that really struck me was that I was enrolled in all these high risk screening programs — getting mammograms and ultrasounds and transvaginal ultrasounds — and yet, if we were successful they would find cancer early. And that, to me, did not make any sense.”
Lindsay began exploring what she could do to be proactive with her health, consulting with medical professionals, and at 23, became the youngest woman to undergo the risk-reducing double mastectomy procedure. She adds that at the time, no doctor in Chicago (where she lived and currently resides) would do it; the procedure was performed at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City. “It was a really empowering, scary-at-times experience to have the opportunity to reduce my risk of developing breast cancer down to 2 to 3 percent, which is dramatically lower than any woman walking down the street.”
Her own experience and subsequent conversations with her peers made Lindsay realize there was a need for education and awareness, as well as a nurturing and welcoming support system that would empower women to take action. Since forming Bright Pink in January of 2007, Lindsay has helped to move the conversation out of the intimidating confines of a doctor’s office. “This is not the conversation that can just be had just once a year when a women goes in for her annual women’s exam.” Bright Pink meets women where they already are, through brand partnerships (David’s Bridal, American Eagle Outfitters, Aerie), educational workshops at workplaces and colleges (Bright Pink is the official charity sponsor of Zeta Tau Alpha), and of course, online.
On connecting with young women today, Lindsay says “[our generation is] so much about ‘Help me understand it, explain it to me, and don’t make me feel like crap about it.’ Bright Pink is about being smart, but positive. Let’s do this in a way that’s as positive as we can, and let’s catch things and deal with things when we’re talking about health, not cancer.” Avner adds, “because quite frankly, the moment it becomes cancer we’re not playing offense anymore. We’re playing defense.” This transition in focus from cancer to health is one of the things Lindsay says she’s most proud of.
Bright Pink created two great ways to be on the offensive. One is with Assessyourrisk.org, an online risk assessment tool and winner of a Webby Award in 2016. “We’re about to (in the next few months) have our millionth woman complete that risk assessment.” The questions are tough, requiring honest answers about your family history and health habits. (We took the plunge and felt an immediate sense of empowerment with our results in hand.) The other is Exploreyourgenetics.org/, an educational starting point for genetic testing.
So what’s next for Bright Pink?
Lindsay stresses that this organization is not the Lindsay Avner foundation. Rather, it belongs to all women, of all socioeconomic status and all races. She decided last year to step down as CEO to make way for a seasoned leader Katie Thiede (formerly of Planned Parenthood) to guide the organization’s continued growth. In Lindsay’s new role as chairman of the board, she has begun recruiting an amazing new team of board members from Google, Deloitte, and OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.
And what’s on the horizon for Lindsay?
The Bright Pink founder is expecting a baby boy! She’s already mom to Lucy (16 months), and stepmom to Zach (19), Lexie (17), and Abby (14). While Lindsay looks ahead to her growing family and the growth of Bright Pink, we can’t help but brighten up ourselves.
For more information, visit brightpink.org
Take charge of your own health and assessyourrisk.org.
Do you have a wave maker that you want to nominate? Think of your teachers, neighbors, friends, or colleagues. Women who are fostering progress and inclusiveness. Women who are making a real difference in the lives of others. Nominate them here.