By Bryan Culp
Heritage Resources director
We cap October with a story for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the annual campaign to increase awareness of the disease and raise funds for research into its cause, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure.
Did you know that Ernie Bodai, MD, a Permanente surgeon and director of the Breast Cancer Survivorship Clinic at Kaiser Permanente, Sacramento, California, was the driving force behind the creation of the U.S. Postal Service’s Breast Cancer Research Stamp?
Since 1998, post offices in big cities and small towns across America have sold 950 million of these first-class postage stamps. Letter-writers and patrons like you and me have raised $85 million for breast cancer research through the purchase of this special postage stamp. More in a moment about the stamp and its genesis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in the U.S. alone over 210,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and 40,000 women die every year from the disease. It is the leading cause of death from cancer among Hispanic women, and the second leading cause of death from cancer among white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native women.
Good news about breast cancer rates
If there’s any good news in these rather jarring and unsettling facts it is that the incident rate has been declining since 1999 and the death rate since 1990. Early detection, mammography screening, and improved therapies have helped to lower mortality rates.
New knowledge through research offers a brighter tomorrow in the fight against breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute reports that advances in cancer genomics and cell biology are leading to the development of less toxic therapies that are tailored to an individual’s genetic profile.
Analysis of “gene expression,” the process by which a gene gets turned on in a cell to make RNA and proteins, has led to the identification of five subtypes of breast cancer, each subtype possessing distinct biological features and each responding differently to clinical therapies. Also, new knowledge of the immune system led to the development of several promising breast cancer treatment vaccines that are currently under clinical evaluation.
A stamp is born
That people like you and me could help fund breast cancer research of this magnitude through the simple purchase of a postage stamp was a novel idea.
The Breast Cancer Research Stamp, now in its fifteenth year, sells for 55 cents; that’s 10 cents over the current rate of first-class postage. By law, the net amount raised from the sale of the stamp is earmarked for breast cancer research at the National Institutes of Health and the Medical Research Program at the Department of Defense.
The three-year journey from day of conception to the first day of issue began in December 1995. “I was stamping holiday cards and preparing for a lecture on the history of breast cancer surgery,” said Bodai, “when suddenly it occurred to me, ‘Why not have a stamp to raise money for breast cancer research?’
“A quick analysis of the United States Postal Service in 1996 revealed that 180 billion pieces of mail were handled, one third of which were first-class items utilizing a 32 cent stamp. If half of those stamps were sold at 33 cents, $300 million would be generated annually, nearly equaling the entire National Cancer Institute’s budget for breast cancer research.”
Bodai contacted Postmaster General Marvin Runyon who tersely rejected the idea on the grounds that the U.S. Postal Service was not a fundraising organization. Bodai then solicited members of Congress proposing legislation to authorize the stamp. He received no replies.
Surgeon cuts through red tape
So he brushed-up on how Congress works and off he went to Washington. He lobbied the 48 women in the House of Representatives and 11 women in the Senate. He started a grass roots campaign and earned endorsements from prestigious organizations including the American College of Surgeons and the American Medical Association. He won over legislative champions Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Victor Fazio (D-CA) who sponsored and shepherded bills to authorize the postage stamp.
In July of 1997, the ‘‘Stamp Out Breast Cancer Act’’ passed the House (422-3), and a similar version passed unanimously in the Senate. President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law (PL 105-41) in August 1997.
With the passage of the law the U.S. Postal Service needed a stamp. Art director Ethel Kessler and illustrator Whitney Sherman were commissioned for its design.
Sherman says of her work, “After many sketches, one idea was taken to final review, the image of Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt.” Sherman found in the Artemis of classical depiction, bow in hand and with a quiver slung over her shoulder, “a figure larger than any single nationality, race or age.
“After developing the line work of Artemis reaching back for her arrow, I realized she was mimicking the stance taken when doing a breast self-examination.” This was an unexpected “visual bonus.”
Kessler, a breast cancer survivor, added the cheerful, vibrant colors and the slogan “Fund the Fight. Find a Cure” to evoke hopefulness and spirit for battle. The stamp debuted in July of 1998 in Los Angeles.
The winter holidays are upon us and soon we’ll be mailing cards to family and friends. When you drop by the post office for that cache of stamps, consider the Breast Cancer Research Stamp. For just a few cents more you too can “fund the fight to find a cure.”