By Mitchell Krugel
Washington Township Officer Heather Castronova had an idea to form a team of cops to join the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk. So she made a phone call to her friend, Old Tappan Officer Kathryn Weaver, and they called their Pascack Valley Local 206 President Bridget Jennings, a Woodcliff Lake cop. Local 206 donated some seed money. Another call led to another, and within a few weeks they had more than 30 active and retired female officers from counties throughout northern New Jersey forming the “Ladies in Blue Fighting in Pink” that united for the 2011 Walk.
The next year, the “Ladies” put up a Facebook page, created a website and went viral. And in the past four years, the group has become a walking, talking, growing, motivating, mobile support system for those in the fight and a titanic force to raise awareness for breast cancer. Adorned with their beguiling T-shirts and unyielding perseverance, the Ladies in Blue Fighting in Pink have created an esteemed presence in the fight against cancer.
“Never have I met a group of women so selfless in their careers, so selfless in their relentless pursuit to change the world,” interjects Katie Chieco, a community manager for the American Cancer Society who was working at the Washington Township PD where she suggested to Castronova that making the Walk could be a way to honor her mother who had cancer.
“You see in the amount of people that show up and in the amount of dollars they raise that they are fearless leaders,” Chieco continues. “They show their pride on their shirts, their hats and their uniforms. They are fearless in their jobs and their mindset.”
Let’s face it guys: You all know that when a group of females comes together, they can accomplish just about anything. And when a group of female cops comes together, well, they believe they can change the world. Maybe it’s how strong the propensity to help people or the intensity to run into the fray when others run away that compels the Ladies in Blue Fighting in Pink to believe and achieve.
Inherent in this group of women, you see, is a sisterhood spawned from the brotherhood of law enforcement. And if actions do speak louder than words, these female officers are intent on taking aim and targeting cancer and proving that we can patrol for a cure, lock up cancer and they can teach us all that cancer is a word, not a sentence.
“Right underneath the thin blue line, we have the thin pink line that bonds us,” asserts Detective Rachel Morgan, Paramus Local 186 member and perhaps the most renowned of all the Ladies in Blue as the 2011 NAPO Top Cops honoree. “Females have that internal voice that tells them to latch on to other girls in the same profession because we go through things that the guys can’t understand like being pregnant and trying to fit into a uniform or fitting into a vest after having a mastectomy. We might be a small group, but great things come in small packages.”
Our Fair Ladies
The fundamental message, of course, from the Ladies is all about breast cancer awareness. Considering that October is breast cancer awareness, let’s start with some awareness: Chieco submits that one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer, but through events like the Walk that attracts some 12,000 participants and generates more than $600,000 in donations, funds are raised to help the American Cancer Society save 490 lives per day.
So October naturally sweeps up people like cops who have the DNA to help whoever and wherever, and it especially sweeps up female cops. Jennings, who served as the nine-town Local 206 president for two years and is still a member of the executive board, saw her department experience the awareness by starting to wear pink hats throughout the month.
But with awareness comes a feeling. There are no words to describe it, save for the welling up around the eyes and the heaviness near the heart. With one in eight diagnosed, breast cancer touches everybody, and this feeling pervades the Ladies in Blue Fighting in Pink.
“I’ve never been in one place with so many female police officers in my entire life,” Castronova recalls of the first October with the Ladies. “I was so touched that everybody came together from all these different departments for one cause. And everybody had their own story.”
That first year, six officers walking were breast cancer survivors. One was Local 206 member Valeri Guglielmotti, a River Vale officer. In July 2009, Guglielmotti just had a miscarriage when she told her doctor of pain she felt afterward in her left breast.
As a precaution, she was sent for a mammogram which revealed Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) at Stage 0, luckily the least invasive type of breast cancer. Doctors suggested a lumpectomy to remove the cancer, but the cop mentality took over and Guglielmotti opted for a double mastectomy.
“Part of being a cop is that you see so many things that could happen, so you are trained to get in there and prevent anything you can,” she explained. “If I had one done the partial or the single mast, I would have worried every time they did a mammogram. It felt better to remove everything and not have to worry they might have missed something.”
The other Ladies insist “Sister Val” has brought something unique to their charge, and that has to be the honor of walking as survivor. And every step seems to reinforce one of the reasons they are walking, supporting and raising awareness.
“When it first happens, it overtakes your whole life – that big ‘C’ word,” Guglielmotti confides. “But then the doctor tells you everything will be OK, to go on and live your life, and you think, ‘I’m blessed.’ Now, I walk to remind everybody to get checked regularly and to let them know that if you’re like me and catch it early, you have a much better chance for a cure.”
Such positive thinking exudes from these Ladies. Perhaps that is the tie that bonds this sisterhood. Chieco tells of how Castronova is always calling her when she meets a resident or neighbor in the fight to, “see if I have a blanket or something I can send them so they know they are not alone. These ladies embody that sentiment.”
Nobody knows that sentiment more than Weaver. The group’s leader got involved following a miscarriage, and she initiates the effort each year to organize for the Walk.
In the strangest twist of fate, Weaver was diagnosed with cervical cancer in March 2014. She was Stage 1, and says she was fortunate that the cancer was cleaned out with a hysterectomy a month or so later. But when she was diagnosed and had surgery, the sisterhood responded like cops do, bringing meals to her family, sending flowers and calling every day.
“We started out as a team of law enforcement officers, but I have found friends I would never have connected with,” Weaver confirms. “We’re helping people who need the help because everybody is affected by cancer in some way, shape or form.”
Morgan is one of those affected. Her mother had breast cancer – twice – but is now cancer free. And because she knows that anguish, because all the ladies know that feeling, they believe they can use their stature as cops to make a profound difference.
“We want to show all female officers that, yes, we’re all here to support you,” Morgan expounds. “But we’re also here to support the men whose daughters, wives, grandmothers or sisters might be going through it. We’re not just cops trying to alert cops. We’re cops trying to alert everyone.”
Like so much of law enforcement’s memorable humanitarian efforts, the Ladies in Blue Fighting in Pink rallied around a T-shirt. Along with their hearts, these Ladies certainly wear their intentions on their sleeves. And some attitude; positive, of course.
When conceiving the idea to form the team, Weaver’s first action was to design the logo that features a heart with blue lines. In 2011, they put the logo on a pink long-sleeve shirt and listed the departments and towns on the back of all officers participating. Since then, the shirts have become part of the identity, featuring memorable slogans that make a statement, such as:
- In 2012, “Locking Up Cancer” with artwork of handcuffs.
- In 2013, “Targeting Cancer” with a picture of a target.
- In 2014, “Cancer is a Word. Not a Sentence” with a picture of a woman behind bars.
- For 2015, “Patrolling for a Cure” with a picture of a police cruiser.
“Every year, I go crazy trying to think of slogans,” Weaver relates. “I literally drive around on midnights, trying to come up with ideas. This year, we have added a male version with a pink blade and the blue lines so we can open it up to the men.”
Opening up to add Men in Blue Fighting in Pink is important for the ladies because they know what is ultra-important to winning this fight.
“We’re such a small part of the population so we had to open it up to raise as much money as possible,” Castronova reasons.
Inviting the men, and the children – Jennings, for example, walks with her two daughters; Guglielmotti has walked with her son, Aiden – also is an expression that the group is as strong as the sum of the parts.
You might notice that their photo of the cover of this issue has the Ladies showing their thin pink line from the back. And the photo you see on page 30 intentionally hides their faces. The “uniforms” they are wearing in these photos are meant to accentuate the shirts and hats and ribbons, not the people. They wanted the photo taken at Ross Dock in Palisades Interstate Park with the George Washington Bridge in the background because every October the bridge is light up pink.
Unfortunately, the threat of Hurricane Joaquin prevented the pink lightbulbs from being installed. But the point they make that it’s about the blue and the pink and the ladies, not any one lady.
“It’s about the whole picture, not Heather form Washington Township or Rachel from Paramus,” emphasizes Castronova. “If we can use our influence as police officers to reach out to as many people as we know, that’s what we set out to do.”
So the police presence for the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk at New Overpeck Park in Ridgefield Park is more than just blocking off the roads. The presence includes Weaver, Castronova, Guglielmotti, Morgan, Jennings – and her daughters Meghan and Courtney – Niamh McGuinness of Bergen County Police Local 49, Ana Bedoya of Englewood Local 216, Christina Rae of Eastern Bergen County Local 45 and probably a whole lot more.
They bring their when-one-goes-through-it-we-all-go-through-it determination to the fight. Chieco defines their walking the extra mile by saying, “Any one of these women would give you the shirt off their back.”
Before we forget, the Ladies have a request: All women need to make sure the get screened and tested regularly. Don’t wait until you’re 40. Catching it early can make all the difference. Remember, one in eight are diagnosed with breast cancer.
Otherwise, there are these closing thoughts:
“It’s about a group fighting for a cure,” says Morgan.
And Castronova adds: “At the end of the day, if it helps one person, we did something special.”
Thank you, Ladies.