Day-care entrepreneur Traci M. Smith's office was filled with employees on that fateful spring afternoon back in 2013.
It was her doctor, and the news was bad: Smith had breast cancer. She went on to have six surgeries, six months of chemotherapy, and 32 radiation treatments. She was in the fight of her life, but through it all, she struggled to keep up her physical appearance, even after losing her thick head of hair.
"I did not want to look like what I was going through," recalled Smith, now 50. "So I made a point to take the extra half an hour to put my cute wig on and to put some eyelashes on. I wanted to give a different perception … of what cancer looked like. People started hitting me up. They couldn't believe it. Even when I walked through the doors of chemo they would ask, 'Who are you here for?' I would say, 'Well, no, I'm getting ready to be administered chemo.' "
As the cancer-fighting drugs were being administered, Smith would hold court with everyone who would accompany her each time — girlfriends, her daughter's father, and relatives. She had lots of support but couldn't help but notice all of the women sitting alone as they got their treatments.
So, in 2015, along with her business partner, Phyllis Young, Smith created a nonprofit called Traci's BIO, which stands for Beautiful Inside & Out. One of the first events was a Pink Love outing during which members were treated to mimosas, a limo ride, and free wig consultations.
"For me, it was important that I just look like my normal self while I was going through it," Smith told me. "I figured if I needed that, there were other ladies that might need that."
Participants call themselves the Pink Sisters and each year tell their stories of being diagnosed and coping with breast cancer in a book they self-publish. The Pink Sister Chronicles recently produced its fourth volume, Perfectly Imperfect.
Last week, I attended a book-signing and gala at the African American Museum in Philadelphia for the latest installment and immediately felt underdressed in that sea of rhinestone earrings and evening gowns. Survivors who each had written a chapter were called onstage as if they were in a beauty showcase. Each is waging war against a disease that the American Cancer Society says will claim more than 40,000 lives this year.
It was hard not to tear up when grief-stricken relatives came forward to represent a Pink Sister who had "gotten her wings" before the book went to press. Then there were moments when I was on my feet applauding the strength and grace of those survivors.
So much beauty in the face of such an awful disease. Even though black and white women get breast cancer at about the same rates, African Americans have a higher mortality rate from it. There are a lot of reasons for that, including disparities in access to health care.
There's power, though, in sisterhood.
We're stronger together. Women need to remind one another and ask, "Girlfriend, when was the last time you had a mammogram?" Women ages 45 to 54 should get yearly mammograms, according to the American Cancer Society. (Those with certain high-risk factors need to start earlier.)
In addition to last week's gala, each Pink Sister hosts at least one book-signing at a church or sorority. The next one is scheduled for noon to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Ashley Stewart store in the 2900 block of North Broad Street, in North Philadelphia.
"We are a support group, but we're not sitting around in a circle talking about 'woe is me,' " Smith said. "We are celebrating life."