Building Bridges

by Lindsey Galloway '07

Most women in the United States are familiar with the terms “breast self-exam” and “mammogram.” But what do these words mean to a 14-year-old girl? How do young adults cope when someone they love is diagnosed with breast cancer? How do they talk about it? Where do they go for answers?

Nicole “Nikki” Silverman had to figure it out on her own.

When Nikki was 14 years old, her mother died of breast cancer.While she struggled with the enormity of the loss, she found a way to cope by learning about the disease and trying to understand as much as she could.

“Knowledge helps us feel empowered instead of victimized,” said Nikki.”That’s not easy! But you come out on the other side and you ask,’How can I help someone else who is going through this?'”

And that is exactly what she is doing.

Last spring, Nikki applied for and received the Donald A. Strauss Scholarship, a $10,000 award given to college juniors who pursue a self-initiated service project during their senior year. She wanted to bring some of her own knowledge of breast cancer to the outside community and help others deal with the disease.

Now, she has been working non-stop to heighten awareness at all levels.At Scripps, she started Bridging the Gaps, a club dedicated to increasing awareness about cancer and other women’s health issues. During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, in October, the club handed out pink ribbon pins to every student on campus and held an informational study break with the residence advisors.

Nikki wanted to be sure that her messages reached middle-school kids as well.”Since one out of every eight women will develop breast cancer, odds are that they know somebody,” said Nikki.”And if they don’t yet, they will.” This past spring, she sought out the cooperation of Upland Junior High School. After receiving permission from administrators, she created and distributed an informative pamphlet aimed at young adults.

The pamphlet carefully presents the differences between malignant and benign tumors, goes over quick facts about breast cancer, and offers tips for talking about the disease. “Cancer is not easy for adolescents to discuss,” Nikki explained, though she hopes that her advice will help both kids struggling with cancer in their family and kids with friends who may be dealing with it. “We shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to others. It’s a myth in our culture that we should deal with grief as privately as possible. But for most of us, that’s not the way it works!”

Next fall, members of Bridging the Gaps plan to visit the middle-school students and hold awareness programs.Though Nikki will be moving on, the impact of her work will remain. “This project has changed me. It has made me think differently about responsibilities to myself, my family, my community,” she said. “I know now that I want to live a life of public service.”

She’s not wasting any time. For the next two years, Nikki, a summa cum laude graduate in psychology, will face the challenges of the classroom, working with Teach for America. “What I’m bringing with me from Scripps is the knowledge that I can make a difference,” she said.”I expect to bring about change.”