Bob Haley looked around the living room-turned-beehive of his family’s Simi Valley home one day earlier this month and took inventory: a constantly ringing telephone, piles of envelopes, messages to be returned.
He turned to his wife with a question: “Where do you think this thing is going, Charlotte?”
“I don’t know,” she recalls telling him, “but it’s started and wherever it’s going we’ll do our best to keep it moving. It’s a grass-roots movement and somebody in the grass will have to join in.”
What Charlotte Haley has started is a personal, simple effort to increase the collective consciousness about breast cancer by getting people to wear small peach-colored ribbons.
Her own awareness of the disease that is expected to claim 46,000 lives this year has been raised the hard way.
Haley’s grandmother died of it at age 45. Then, she says, “it skipped a generation. My mother died of cervical cancer in her early 40s.” But Haley’s sister developed breast cancer, had a mastectomy in 1983 and “is nine years clear.” Haley’s daughter Nancy, now 41, is a three-year survivor. Of herself, the 69-year-old Haley says, “I’ve been fortunate. So far.”
In return for a stamped, self-addressed envelope, Haley sends five ribbons attached to cards that read: “National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 Billion. Only 5% goes for cancer prevention. Help us to wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.”
When syndicated columnist Liz Smith mentioned the effort, along with Haley’s phone number ((805) 522-2071) on July 29, “the phone rang at 5 a.m. and did not quit until 8 p.m.,” Haley says.
Now, she is losing count of the phone calls; she puts the mail in a big carton and is sending out the last of the first batch of 1,000 ribbons.
The demand increased to the point where the Haleys had to move chairs from the living room to make room for a couple of work tables. Her husband helps with the phone; a 10-year-old grandson who lives nearby cuts the ribbons; daughter Nancy applies the glue.
Not wanting to incorporate, she urges people to copy what she’s doing rather than send donations. Of her expenses to date, she says, “Frankly, I don’t want to know.”
Although none of this adds up to a national groundswell, Haley knows she has touched a nerve: “One woman cried on the phone and said, ‘We’re dying out here. Thank God for thinking of this. Get it to me.’ So many of them say that.”
Charlotte Haley has spent most of her adult life as a housewife, mother and grandmother, and has seldom worked outside the home. She considers herself a feminist.
“I’ve never felt restricted. My husband never stood in my way,” she says. “I just was always there when my children came home on the bus.”
Because of her family history, she has always been mindful of breast cancer, she says, recalling the old days “when the words were whispered.”
She is impressed with the openness and more supportive atmosphere that surrounds the disease today: “Nancy’s co-workers were fantastic. (Her experience) opened up a lot of communication. . . . “
But the removal of some social stigma has done little to improve the statistics. Cancer is increasing, and American experts such as the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society and activist groups say breast cancer now strikes one in nine women. They expect 180,000 new cases and 46,000 deaths this year.
Haley says she just keeps thinking: “Why not a cure yet?” But she is no rabble-rouser and frequently qualifies what may sound like a complaint with the protestation, “I’m not criticizing.”
Still, she maintains that breast cancer seems to be one of those diseases that has been “put on the back burner,” and dismissed as “a women’s disease. I think we all feel that way.”
That conviction led to her belief that something new was needed to bring attention to it. “Why not a ribbon for breast cancer?” she remembers thinking.
That she thought of a ribbon certainly had something to do with the red ribbons being worn for AIDS awareness.
Haley, uncomfortable, hesitates: “I don’t like to say that,” she says, explaining that it may sound as though she begrudges money for AIDS. Such is not the case.
And she needn’t worry about a negative response from one key group involved in the red ribbon AIDS campaign.
“Good for her,” says Rodger McFarlane, executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “Our adversaries use that argument against us: ‘You’re getting more (money) than breast cancer.’
“We need many things for many people. God knows, she’s fighting the same battles we are,” he says, referring to what he terms anachronistic research funding policies that exclude certain categories of people. “Women are horrifyingly underrepresented.”
For the first step of her personal campaign, Haley took some ribbons to the June meeting of the PEO Sisterhood, a group that supports women’s higher education. After the formal meeting, she displayed them.
“They wore them out the door,” she says of the members’ positive reaction. Next, she made a few excursions to parking lots at stores such as Vons, and met with enough success that she decided to pursue it. Next, she “wrote to all the Presidents’ wives--Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford.”
Haley’s prior political activity, she says, had been a single trip to the airport with her three children “with signs” to see a presidential candidate. She doesn’t identify the candidate. A circumspect woman, Haley says that while she has political opinions, she sees no need for them to appear in print.
Admittedly an amateur, she didn’t include former first ladies Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Lady Bird Johnson (“I forgot all about them”) or Pat Nixon (“I didn’t know where to write”). She has yet to receive any response from the others, but Abigail Van Buren--Dear Abby--wrote and told Haley that she’d proudly wear the ribbon.
And Haley is proud to say that her husband of 49 years--and high school sweetheart--also wears one.
A genial man, Robert Haley calls himself the project’s “go-fer.” He occasionally takes calls about the ribbons: “I think the one that got me was the man who called while his wife was in surgery for breast cancer. That just tore me up.”
Neither may be too sure where this project is going, but Charlotte Haley knows her goal.
“What it says on the card--more research,” she says.
“I guess the word is a cure.”