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The power of pink

With a pink fire truck and firefighters outfitted in pink shirts, Guardians of the Ribbon rolled onto the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus last Thursday on its Pink Heals Tour, supporting women and raising awareness about cancer.

UM student Rose Aviles writes a message to her stepmother on the side of Tonya, the Pink Heals fire truck that visited the Coral Gables campus last Thursday.

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Covered from its chrome bumper to its rear taillights with inspirational messages from cancer survivors and those who have lost loved ones to the disease, the big, pink fire engine rolled onto the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus last Thursday, coming to a stop on the patio-style area known as The Rock as a curious crowd of onlookers gathered around.

Among the first to add her thoughts to the truck’s message-cluttered exterior was 23-year-old Rose Aviles, a junior in UM’s School of Communication. With marker in hand, Aviles scrawled a sentence to her stepmother, Mildred, telling her “you are the inspiration and motivation of my life.” Mildred had recently lost her mother to breast cancer, and Aviles was proud of the way she endured through the devastating loss of someone so close.

For the next two hours, dozens of others—students on their way to classes, employees on their lunch breaks—would scrawl similar messages on the truck, one of seven pink fire engines that are symbols of the Guardians of the Ribbon, a group of firefighters who travel the country on Pink Heals tours to raise awareness about cancer.

“We’re here for all forms of cancer and all women,” said Glendale, Arizona, firefighter Dave Graybill, who founded the nonprofit organization three years ago. “I wanted to create a program to celebrate women, because my mother, who is healthy, raised me to give and to take care of our women at all cost. I wanted to wage war, like we’re waging war all over the world, against a terrorist called cancer.”

Graybill buys his fire trucks from eBay auctions, painting them in the signature color of breast cancer awareness and naming each one after a woman he has met who has either died of cancer or survived the illness.

Tonya, one of seven pink fire trucks in the Pink Heals fleet, is covered with message from cancer survivors and the cancer stricken, as well as people who have lost loved one to the disease.Tonya, the truck that rolled onto campus Thursday as part of the Pink Heals’ Miami stopover, is named for a firefighter’s wife from Tyler, Texas,  who lost her battle with cancer.

“It’s become the Vietnam War Memorial in the battle against cancer for women,” Graybill says of the vehicle. “When I hand a pen to a woman, or a man, who wants to sign a message on it, it’s about her and her battle with cancer.”

Among the signees: A woman with seven different types of cancer, a 60-year survivor, and a 3-year-old girl with brain cancer.

Graybill wants to add more fire trucks to his fleet, with the ultimate goal of sending a truck and a firefighter to any city anywhere in the nation to give a hug to a woman facing a diagnosis of cancer.

His organization doesn’t accept donations, but travels to charitable events all over the country, helping local organizations raise money that stays within the community. He and the other firefighters who drive the trucks use their vacation time for touring, selling T-shirts to pay for fuel.

At Thursday’s Pink Heals event on the UM campus, cancer-focused student organizations representing Up ’til Dawn, which benefits St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Relay for Life, which aids the American Cancer Society, set up displays and passed out literature.

Arizona firefighter Dave Graybill, who founded Guardians of the Ribbon and its Pink Heals Tour, speaks during last Thursday's tour stop on campus.

Members of the women’s basketball and soccer teams stood as one group, passing out flyers promoting their upcoming “pink” games, at which they will don pink uniforms in recognition of breast cancer awareness and then auction off their jerseys to raise funds for cancer research.

Maria Brown, a freshman small forward on the basketball team, said she attended the event to honor her late grandmother, who died of ovarian cancer three years ago. “Anything dealing with cancer, I feel it’s important to show up,” she said.

Brittney MacDonald, a senior defender on the soccer team, echoed Brown’s sentiments, saying she planned to sign a message on the truck for her friend Wendy, whose mother is a cancer survivor.

UM junior Genevieve Stack, the service chair for Zeta Tau Alpha sorority, organized a team of students who passed out pink ribbons, breast self-examination shower hanger cards, and brochures reminding women to get a mammogram.

Stack also coordinated a yogurt-eating contest, collecting the pink lids from empty Yoplait yogurt containers that will be rinsed and mailed to the company, which has committed to donate 10 cents to Susan G. Komen for the Cure for every lid sent in.

Sophie Egea, manager of research for the Braman Family Breast Cancer Institute at Sylvester, was on hand to discuss important studies under way at the institute that offer hope for breast cancer patients. “We promote translational research because we want to shorten the time it takes for science to go from the bench to the bedside,” Egea said. “And that translates into better care and better treatment options for patients in a shorter time period.”

Egea described a clinical trial now under way at Sylvester focusing on a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer—estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer—that affects younger women. The trial combines a regular hormone therapy with a new inhibitor that slows down a particular molecular pathway in this subtype of breast cancer.

Ten firefighters from the City of Coral Gables Fire Rescue Department, which partnered with the Pink Heals Tour on its Miami visit, also attended the event, wearing pink shirts that read “Supporting Cancer Victims” while selling pink hats, T-shirts, and wrist bands.

“It’s in the blood of firefighters to stand up for those who can’t stand for themselves,” said Hope Gibbs, division chief in charge of professional standards and the liaison for her department’s Pink Heals partnership. “Everyone has been affected by cancer in some way or another, whether it’s a friend or family member who’s gotten the disease.”

With his Miami stop complete, Graybill took his pink fire truck to Florida’s west coast, for stops in Tampa, Sarasota, and Fort Myers. The trucks, he said, always draw attention. “It’s the color that represents the most important people in our lives—our women.”

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