I knew Annette as a much-loved friend of dear friends. While we took to each other instantly, we lived several states apart. Our time together was often fleeting and I always felt as though there was so much more about her I wanted to know.
What I did know about Annette, though, shook the very core of me. She had four charming, full-of-smiles daughters. She worked as a senior cosmetics buyer at Nordstrom and always lovingly nurtured my skincare line, Philosophy, that I created in 1996. At 38, she gave birth to her youngest girl, Ally. A year later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Annette fought the disease for four years, all the while rising at dawn to make breakfast for her family. She spent evenings brushing her daughters' hair and reading them bedtime stories, and her days working her full-time job -- yes, even while she was ill. When I saw her, she was clearly sapped, almost hollowed, by the disease. Her immense pain shot through the whole of me.
Everything she was doing, everything that was happening to her -- it was all too much. She once told me that she railed so hard against the cancer, faced it down with so much courage, for her family's sake. She didn't want her daughters to have to grow up without her.
Who would clean their cuts and scrapes, soothe their fevers? Who would help her lovely girls dress for prom night? Tack up the posters on the their college dorm-room walls? Hold their hand and whisper big life wisdom into their ear just before they walked down the aisle? She didn't know the answers to these questions so she battled the cancer with every ounce of fight she had in her.
It was a few days before Mother's Day when I got the news: Annette had died. She was 43.
After that dreaded phone call, I sat in silence and alone for many moments. But when my own little girl bounded into my bedroom, asking me to draw with her at our kitchen table, I put aside my tears.
Instead, I made a resolution. I resolved to pour my grief for Annette and her beautiful children into taking a stand. Against fear. Against inaction. Against the disease itself. I decided to start She Colors My Day, a worldwide movement devoted to helping find a cure for breast cancer.
When we hear the word "cancer" so many of us react on a truly primal level. We're shaken, scared, we want to flee. Cancer leaves so many of us feeling helpless, filled with a sense of doom, betrayed by our own bodies.
And it's true: Breast cancer is a ruthless disease. It doesn't care who you are, who you love, or who needs you. It affects about 12 percent of all American women. And that means that if I gathered five of my closest friends, my sister and my mother into my living room with me, chances are that one of us would develop breast cancer at some point in her life.
But we do have some control over how breast cancer influences us, and ultimately our daughters. The morning after I learned about Annette's passing, I resolved to teach my little girl about how to stay healthy, and what to do if we do fall sick because of a disease like breast cancer. I also chose to focus on the positive.
About Breast Cancer:
My daughter is still very young so I tell her only what I feel she needs to know -- that sometimes people get sick, and we go to the doctor to try to get well. Together, we have met children and grownups who are battling a terminal illness or other disabilities and we talk about how in life, this sometimes happens. I tell her that even when people are challenged, they still love to laugh.
But the best news of all is that thanks to our doctors, we are finding cures. Women are fighting cancer and, more and more often now, they are winning. This strategy -- accepting that cancer may affect the people we love -- seems to be working. When my little one meets someone who is not well she still looks at them with big brown eyes that say, "Hold my hand and let's play."
We talk about eating right, how each food group helps to build a healthy body and how healthy bodies can fight diseases of all kinds. When my girl becomes older, we will talk about the importance of having yearly mammograms and sonographies, and how even if your body develops cancer, if you detect it early enough, a doctor can help you get well.
In the future, we will have a conversation about the importance of not putting toxins into our body, whether they might come from processed food, cigarette smoke, or negative emotions and stress.
But for now, we talk about the value of sleeping, exercising and laughing as much as you can -- all the while accepting that life brings bumps and bruises and it's how we deal with those that shows the world who we truly are.
About Sadness And Grief:
Even when I'm at my lowest, I try not to show my child too much of my grief -- a tact that friends who are child specialists support. "You are modeling to your children how you accept and deal with an illness," says Susan Newman, a social psychologist and the author of "Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Everyday." "If you show you have a handle on your emotions, even in the worst of times, they will be able to do the same in the future."
Dan Siegel, a child psychiatrist and the author of "Parenting from the Inside Out," echoes that point but adds that there will certainly be times when you will be overwhelmed by emotion. Deal with it privately and make sure there's another adult around to offer the kids support. "You should grieve, of course," he says. "But remember, kids need us. Always show you can still take care of yourself and them, too."
When she's older, I will tell my daughter that with breast cancer, a person often has a treatment that makes her hair fall out. But that's okay. Because then maybe she'll want to try on different color wigs - why not try a purple bob -- and wear them until her hair grows back. Or maybe she'll just want to stay bald and look cool. It's her choice.
You can also show your compassion in everyday ways. Go on an organized walk to benefit breast cancer. Spend a Saturday afternoon volunteering together to stuff envelopes for a breast cancer campaign. Donate to breast cancer research at the supermarket checkout stand. "Just remember to let your child in on what you're doing and why," says Susan Newman. "Showing them you're a caring, giving person will give them a wonderful model to follow."
I also let me daughter know what friends or family members might experience when they're sick. For example, our neighbor with cancer might feel tired and nauseous; because of this, we try to be super quiet so that she can get better. We focus on how we can help people who are not well and what we can do to make them smile.
And that's how my daughter understands that she has a gift: The ability to help someone heal. Just by beaming someone a heartfelt smile or by drawing a card with a colorful picture, you can lift an ailing friend's spirits.
We all share that gift, the power to enhance the lives of those with breast cancer. What it takes is for us to offer our love, blessings and courage to those who need us. At She Colors My Day, my child and yours can color for a cure, by creating online drawings and posting them on a shared gallery -- a way to send out a message of love and support for breast cancer survivors. Here, you can also find other wonderful ways to contribute to the Susan G. Komen and Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF)/ Women's Cancer Research Fund (WCRF).
Please join us at She Colors My Day this month and next, and the month after that, too. Spend some time with your daughter on the SCMD pages and let me know on my Facebook page how you had this conversation with your little one. Teach your child that she too has the power to help a breast cancer survivor and to color for a cure.
Cristina Carlino is a mother, poet and the founder and creator of Philosophy, one of the most beloved brands in the cosmetic industry. Cristina Carlino is currently working on Project Miracle; a grassroots social network connecting miracle makers to the miraculous. Be an angel and make a miracle. To learn more, join Cristina at www.facebook.com/cristinacarlino