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Crystal Shirk’s birthday, Sept. 30, began like most days for the Black Mountain resident. She got up early and went on a run with her friend. As she made her way through the center of town, something unusual caught her eye.

A pink fire hydrant on State Street, one of 12 in the area painted the night before by the Black Mountain Fire Department in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, touched off an unexpected moment of reflection. 

Birthdays have held an increased significance for Shirk since 2016, when she was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. 

“I sat down with the doctor (on my birthday) and that’s when they officially gave me the diagnosis,” she said. “They gave me all the information I would need going forward.”

Shirk, who is in her 13th year as the head athletic trainer at Owen High School, through Pardee Sport Medicine, began undergoing treatment immediately. 

“The idea behind the treatment was to get (the cancer) out of there fast,” she said. “It was all-encompassing. For me, it was a year of throwing everything at it. There was chemotherapy, radiation and, of course, surgery. And there were the medications that I’m still on now.”

While the treatment successfully removed the cancer, it couldn't completely take it off her mind.   

"It comes back up," Shirk said. "You always worry, because you wonder if it will ever return, or when and where it might come back. It can happen to anybody, and that's something that always goes through my mind."

That uneasiness can make October, which was first recognized as Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 1985 through a partnership between the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries, a tough time of the year for survivors. 

The color pink has played a prominent role in the month since the Breast Cancer Research Foundations established the pink ribbon as its symbol in 1993. Today, the color is ubiquitous throughout the month, when efforts to raise awareness about the disease are at their strongest. 

"I've been part of a lot of different breast cancer forums and groups over the past three years, and some women are really affected by that; they'd rather not be reminded of that experience," Shirk said. "And a lot of people go spend money on pink merchandise without really knowing who they're giving it to."

However, Breast Cancer Awareness Month has made a huge positive impact, she added. 

"It's definitely raised the awareness that we need to be getting checked early in life, and this isn't something we can ignore," Shirk said. "Early detection typically results in better treatment options, and we want people to get checked. And a big part of the month of October is that it's helped raise a lot of funding for groups that are really using that money for research."

It's important that people who wish to support breast cancer research, do research of their own, according to Shirk.

"If you're going to put your money into this, then put it somewhere that it's really going to help," she said. "Ten years ago there were a lot less treatments available for breast cancer, but now so much money and awareness has been raised, they are saving so many more lives than they used to. So no matter how you feel about all the pink, it's helped us get to where we are today."

Black Mountain Fire Chief Scottie Harris had two goals when he decided to have his department paint the hydrants pink just before the month of October — raise awareness and show support for survivors like Shirk. 

"One of my goals when I came here was to engage the community," said Harris, who was hired as chief in May. "I saw this as an opportunity to not only bring attention to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but also as a way to show support for a community that shows so much support for us."

Firefighters from the department can be seen wearing pink shirts throughout the month. 

"We want to recognize the survivors who have faced that challenge and give them an outlet to send a message to anyone else," Harris said. 

Each pink hydrant features a laminated sheet of paper explaining the purpose of the initiative and a permanent marker for passersby to leave a message. 

"We're not raising money through this, we're offering support for survivors while raising awareness for an important cause," the chief said.  

While the month of October may feel bittersweet at times for Shirk, a dedicated runner, she was grateful for the gesture when she encountered one of the hydrants. 

"I was out running and I thought it was really cool," she said. "It's such a neat way for Black Mountain to support Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I was happy to see that."

Shirk was one of the first to leave a written message on the hydrant. 

"I wrote 'C. Shirk, Run with Boys, Survived!'" she said. "Run with boys is a hashtag I use." 

By Oct. 2, there were well over a dozen messages scrawled on that hydrant, including one from a 99-year-old survivor. 

"We've seen a good response already," Harris said. "I walked around downtown to look at some of them and several of them had signatures on them. A lot of them were messages of encouragement."

Shirk hopes the hydrants will help raise awareness for breast cancer on a local level. 

"Don't skip your visits, get checked sooner than later and make sure you research whoever you give your money to," she said. 

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