The story behind ‘Pretty in Pink’ —Interview with Mary Nilan

April 15, 2014


Breast Cancer 2 Photo courtesy of Mary Nilan
U.Va. fourth-year student Mary Nilan poses with mother, Mary Ann Wasil, founder of the Get In Touch Foundation at a brunch in California.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Emily Lloyd

Fourth year UVa religious studies major Mary Nilan was in middle school when her mother, Mary Ann Wasil, was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Interestingly enough, Mary Ann essentially ignored a negative mammogram and a radiologist’s advice during the process of her diagnosis until a surgeon diagnosed her with stage two breast cancer. Mary Ann’s efforts to pursue the issue so aggressively seems odd, but to her and to her family, it seemed second-nature because of how comfortable she was with her own body. Since then, Mary Ann has made it her mission to teach not only her two daughters but also girls all over the world about the importance of breast health and breast self-exams beginning at a young age. At the end of all her treatments, Mary Ann Wasil sat down with family friends to figure out some way to educate girls and women about the importance of breast self-exams. After talking to the local school nurses in their hometown of Milford, Conn., Mary Ann realized that no such education program existed and decided to start a non-profit organization called the “Get In Touch Foundation.” Mary describes her mother’s teachings about breast exams as a way to make girls feel comfortable with their bodies, to understand “what feels normal and what doesn’t” and to “get into really good habits at a young age.” Though Mary has lived with her mother’s diagnosis and teachings since middle school, she still acknowledges that there is always more to learn about your body. Three years ago, her mother found that the cancer came back and is metastatic, meaning that it will be in her body forever. Mary said that this experience taught her that breast tissue extended farther into the shoulder than she thought and that being aware of all parts of your body is an important element of self-exams. She also stated that because of the foundation and the amount of time and energy her family has spent dedicated to education about breast cancer and breast health, she realized that “being able to talk about it is a blessing and being able to create a dialogue with people my own age is awesome.” For the Get In Touch Foundation, the primary method of fundraising is the “Pretty In Pink Brunches.” The first brunch was held in their hometown of Milford, and since then has branched out all over the country. A few weeks ago, Mary went out to Los Angeles, Calif. to be a part of the first brunch there. At the end of March, Charlottesville hosted its second annual Pretty In Pink Brunch,  honoring Janet Herman, a professor in the Environmental Science Department at U.Va. who has been very active in breast cancer awareness before and after her diagnosis. Mary and her older sister, Betsy, who graduated from UVa in 2013, are both founding board members of the Get In Touch Foundation. Mary spoke a lot about how inspirational her mother is to her, but the feeling is clearly mutual. As Mary Ann puts it, “Their fingerprints are all over its creation and its success…When you educate a girl, you educate the world. My daughters are the embodiment of this simple, yet powerful phrase, and I could not be more proud.”


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