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Wrist and Recuperation

Yellow Bracelet Makes Fashion -- and Health -- Statement

By Alicia C. Shepard
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 26, 2004; Page C09

Look around.

There's a quiet yellow wristband revolution going on.

They are not bar ID bracelets, as one Arlington teacher surmised when he saw Penn State students wearing them at a football game.


Lance Armstrong sports a bracelet that his cancer-survivor foundation sells to raise funds. (Manuel Balce Ceneta -- AP)

"I thought it was because the game started so early on Saturday," said Randy McKnight, "that they hadn't had time to remove the ID bracelets from the night before."

McKnight missed the fact that even his H-B Woodlawn High School students were sporting yellow.

These days you'd be hard-pressed not to see someone with a taxicab-colored yellow wristband.

It's not just high school and college kids either. It's politicians, bike mechanics and baristas. College professors, cooks and celebrities. Notice the splash of yellow on the wrists of Matt Damon, Bruce Willis, Gwyneth Paltrow, the Bens (Stiller and Affleck) and the Williamses (Serena and Robin). President Bush has one. Sen. John Kerry wears one. Kerry had prostate cancer in 2003, and his father died from cancer, according to the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which together with Nike is behind the yellow wristband campaign.

"It's become a global phenomenon," says Nike spokesperson Trish Burns. "You saw the yellow bands in Athens on the wrists of Olympians. We sold out of them in Paris at the Tour de France."

Some say it's this year's pink ribbon. But in reality, Nike and Armstrong have come up with an exceptionally effective and far-reaching fundraising strategy. In only five months, demand for these gender-neutral wristbands emblazoned with "LIVESTRONG" has exceeded any ambitious fundraiser's wildest hopes.

When the Armstrong Foundation launched the "Wear Yellow, Live Strong" campaign on May 17, it had a simple goal: Sell 5 million bands for $1 each, and Nike would throw in $1 million. Then, use the $6 million for resources to help young people living with cancer.

But here's what happened: By August, they were out of stock. Nike had to whip up 3 million more. Then more and more. As of this week, Armstrong's foundation has sold 20 million yellow bracelets, says Milford. And it can't keep up with the demand.

"Our goal was to raise $1 million for each of Lance's six Tour de France wins," says Armstrong spokesperson Michelle Milford. "What happened after that was a wonderful, totally unexpected surprise. We kept thinking demand would eventually fall off. But it hasn't."

Bike stores in the Washington area beg the foundation for more, and when the silicone bands come in, they sell out within days. An Austin bicycle store sold 2,000 in one day.

One sure way to get a wristband is the charity's Web site, www.laf.org. But that's going to take some patience. The minimum wait is three weeks.

"We got in 100 and they were gone in about three days," said Cal Doucette, who works at Spokes bike store in Vienna. "My wife's a breast cancer survivor. I bought 17 of them for my kids and grandkids. I hardly ever take mine off."

He did allow that, for authenticity's sake, he removes the neon yellow band when he dons Civil War reenactment garb.

Of course, there's profiteering. The impatient can find them on eBay for as much as $36. The problem is that doesn't help the charity.

"Too many consumers believe the money is coming to us," says Milford. "It's not. If you buy them on eBay, you are basically lining someone else's pocket."

That's the bad news, but far more fascinating is the way the bands appear to unite people. Milford reports that at least 20 couples bought bunches of wristbands as favors for wedding guests.

"We've even had a couple of people order them to give out at funerals where the person died of cancer," Milford says. "People have found that they are a personal way of showing their support for our mission. We get e-mails every day from people telling us stories about the wristbands."

People's reasons for wearing, buying or passing them out as gifts are all the same: The yellow bands show support for those battling cancer, and create an instant bond among the wearers.

Not everyone who gets cancer dies of it, but many can attest that a diagnosis -- whether spoken to a parent, a friend or a spouse -- can feel like a death sentence. It isn't. Ask Armstrong. Two years after being treated for testicular cancer that had invaded his brain and lungs, he won his first Tour de France in 1999.

The wristbands are also conversation pieces. People ask about them: What's that? Why are you wearing it? How did you manage to get one? They are also silent ways of communicating to another person. They say: "I understand. I'm on your side."

There are countless moving stories like the one from an American University student:

"My brother and I both lost people we cared about to cancer around the same time this year," says sophomore Emily Carone. "When he saw the bracelets in a bike shop, he bought a bunch of them, and brought one home for me. I think he knew we needed something that would make us feel like we were helping, even if it was just wearing a bracelet. I wear it to feel like I'm helping the cause and to remind me that the person who gave it to me is only a phone call away."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company