Pink, With Purpose

I’m a 14-year survivor of grade 3 triple-negative breast cancer.

When breast-cancer survivor Allison Vitsky Sallmon realized she shouldn’t have
to choose between diving and participating in cancer fundraisers, she founded
the nonprofit Dive into the Pink.

As striking as that statement appears at first glance, it isn’t terribly noteworthy from a statistical perspective. It’s not news that breast cancer is one of the most common cancers affecting women or that 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will develop invasive breast cancer during her lifetime. The most exceptional aspect to my story is the age at which I was diagnosed and treated: 33.

At 33, every breast cancer survivor I knew of was 20 years or more my senior. I’d like to say that a fierce warrior was born the minute I was diagnosed, but it took me a while to get my game face on. I was angry and afraid. Young breast cancer patients face issues such as higher mortality rates, diminished fertility and the possibility of early menopause. I hated the looks of pity, I hated my feelings of helplessness, and I wasn’t fond of the color pink (a symbol of breast cancer awareness and a major element of every card or gift I received). I didn’t feel like a warrior at all; I felt very alone.

Although I’d always prided myself on my independence, I made an exception when I heard about the Young Survival Coalition (YSC), an organization dedicated to supporting women younger than 40 with breast cancer. Soon I was introduced to a group of young women who had already navigated this disease, which instantly provided me with a core group of friends who understood exactly what I was experiencing. These incredible ladies kept me company at chemotherapy, crowded noisily into my room during hospital stays and, most important, ensured that I felt normal. I remained intensely involved with the YSC for years after my treatment concluded, mentoring other newly diagnosed patients and raising awareness that breast cancer can arise in women of all ages.

Dive into the Pink holds an annual underwater photo contest focusing on pink subjects. Alison Perkins’ spawning anemones was this year’s winning image.

Over time my involvement with YSC waned, and I moved across the country to California, where diving, which was previously a seasonal activity, became my near-daily obsession. I rarely thought about cancer anymore except in October, when I’d guiltily pass throngs of pink T-shirted walkers on my way to the ocean. Occasionally I’d skip a dive to participate, but my heart was no longer in it. I had to face facts: I wanted to dive during my free time, and one thing cancer had taught me was that life is short and I should enjoy it.

As October 2015 approached, I was thinking remorsefully about all the upcoming breast cancer walks and runs when I realized I shouldn’t have to choose between diving and fundraising. Inspired, I gathered a group of friends and organized a special dive charter, the proceeds of which would go to select cancer charities. Envisioning those October swarms of pink T-shirts, I named the event Dive into the Pink and requested that participants show up with an item of pink gear.

When I donned a pink drysuit, I was briefly concerned that I might be overdoing it. I needn’t have worried: Nearly every diver showed up in pink — a few to an outrageous degree. We spent a fantastic afternoon doing what we all wanted to be doing anyway: diving. Best of all, we distributed sizeable donations at the end of the day. I’ve never felt more gratified, and I knew immediately that this could become a larger effort.

The organization runs dive trips to destinations such as Catalina Island.

Today, Dive into the Pink is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that raises money for breast cancer research and patient support through engagement of the diving community. We want divers to feel as if they’re donating simply by participating in activities they would do anyway: diving, taking underwater photos and coveting gear. Half of our proceeds go to the YSC, which played such an important role in my own cancer fight, and the other half helps to directly fund cancer research. Our current research recipient is the Guise Laboratory at Indiana University.

Although the incorporation of pink into our events was initially a spontaneous, tongue-in-cheek decision, it quickly became a comical signature. The California dive charters now have rivalries to see who can out-pink everyone else; last year one pink-clad diver even pulled up at our San Diego charter on a pink Vespa.

Notable Think Pink photo contest entries include Bruno van Saen’s seahorse
and coral.

We also recently held our first annual Think Pink underwater photo contest, to which competitors submitted breathtaking images featuring the color pink. We run occasional fundraising trips to warm-water destinations, and we hold an annual online silent auction of dive gear, trips and apparel. None of these events would be remotely possible without the dive industry professionals who have so generously supported our efforts; they are the heroes of every event we organize.

Dive into the Pink is still young, but it seems that we’ve harnessed something remarkable. Divers are the most fun-loving and determined people I know, and when they support a cause, they do so powerfully, unreservedly and, it seems, colorfully.

© Alert Diver — Q4 2017