FEATURE | Posted Sept. 3, 2014

Fighting lung cancer with purple pedicures

Viral Facebook post sparks fundraising campaign

Social Media on purple toes
The original Facebook post that started the campaign.

A UC Davis cancer patient’s purple toenails have sparked a national and international movement, raising awareness and research funds for lung cancer, the number-one cancer killer in the United States.

When Valerie Brosdal learned in August 2013 that she had late-stage lung cancer, her world shook. “Things were really dark there for about a month,” she said during a recent immunotherapy treatment at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.

But taking a break from it all at a nail salon a few weeks after learning of her diagnosis gave the 53-year-old woman from Pleasanton something to smile about.

Prompted by a pedicure

As she was having her toenails painted purple—her favorite color—her husband, Ralph Kapostins, decided to have a purple pedicure, as well.

“He wanted to do something to cheer me up,” Brosdal recalls. And it worked.

Touched by the gesture, Brosdal was all smiles, and her husband shared their special moment with friends on Facebook.

“Show us your purple toes!” he wrote, inviting others to paint their toenails purple and send a snapshot. For each of the first 50 photos of painted toenails they received, the couple said they would make a $20 donation to the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation.

Campaign spreads on social media

Friends and family quickly joined, sending photos of their purple toenails and making Brosdal smile. As word spread through social media, strangers from around the country and the world also picked up purple polish and sent photos.

And that’s how the “Purple Toes Campaign, Smiles for Val” was born.

Purple toes pedicure Courtesy of KVTV NBC
"Purple with a Purpose" created by nail company OPI. Photographs courtesy of NBC Bay Area News.

As promised, the couple donated to The Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, an organization that seeks to transform lung cancer treatment through public education and cutting-edge research. The foundation also played a key role in connecting Brosdal to David Gandara, a renowned lung cancer specialist and thoracic oncology program director at UC Davis.

To date, the couple has received photos of more than 500 individuals, groups, even cats and dogs — all wearing purple toenail polish.

“I get to smile every day now,” Brosdal said, her eyes filling with tears. “I can’t imagine not having the purple toes and can’t imagine how others deal with this disease without having such support.”

Kapostins couldn’t be more pleased about the unexpected impact of his small act — especially on his wife.

“She lights up every time we receive another photo, and it tells me people are thinking of us and empathizing with what we’re going through,” he said. “It means a lot to know we’re not alone.”

From local media coverage and blogs to features on CNN and other national outlets, Ralph Kapostins’ loving gesture has drawn a lot of attention and inspired many to show support.

A special purple shade

Nail care giant OPI Products Inc. donated 500 bottles of purple polish — Purple with a Purpose — to the cause. In partnership with the Addario organization, the campaign has raised more than $15,000 for patient services, lung cancer awareness and research.

Brosdal and cancer center staff © UC Regents
Valerie Brosdal and husband Ralph Kapostins with cancer center care team.

“It took 3 1/2 years to diagnose my cancer,” said Brosdal, whose symptoms included a chronic cough and fatigue and shortness of breath. By the time doctors confirmed it, the disease had advanced to stage IV.

The couple hopes the campaign will ultimately reduce lung cancer deaths through education about early signs of lung cancer — especially for people who have never smoked, like Brosdal — and on the importance of early detection.

Brosdal is thrilled about the success of the campaign, including conversations on social media in which people acknowledge a new understanding of the disease.

“From our perspective, if we can raise the awareness level to where we can get at least one person detected earlier, our efforts are a win at that point,” said Kapostins.

For more information or to submit a photo, e-mail purpletoes@lungcancerfoundation.org. Many photos will be included in a “living mural” Ralph is making for Valerie — a collection of the purple toe photos they have received. A print copy of the mural can be purchased online at www.purpletoes.org, with proceeds going to the Bonnie Addario Lung Cancer Foundation.