Here are the four finalists for our Hero of Hope Patient Award! If you are not familiar with the nominees, click on their names to read their stories before voting.
Financial Support Through Breast Cancer Solutions
When Heather Gilbert learned in 1996 that she was facing stage I breast cancer, she was fortunate to have the resources and support needed to focus on treatment. Getting back on her feet required a lumpectomy and radiation therapy, but Heather was able to return to her job as a software program development manager at a Fortune 500 company after treatment. Coworkers who had faced similar health issues were sympathetic, recommending doctors and support groups in the area.
“I didn’t face financial challenges during my treatment, but I remember sitting in waiting rooms next to people who were afraid, because they couldn’t afford treatment, or because their treatment might jeopardize their ability to work,” Heather recalls.(Continued on the next slide)
At that time, Heather, who lives in Lake Forest, CA, also joined a local support group, where she met a fellow patient who worked for Orange County Social Services. Through this friend, she heard stories of women with cancer who couldn’t work during treatment or were on the verge of losing their homes because of missed mortgage payments. One homeless woman was even denied care because she didn’t have a place to be released after treatment.
“Sometimes public assistance can’t step in fast enough and something more immediate is needed,” Heather says. “In January 1998, I teamed up with 4 other people to start a nonprofit organization called Breast Cancer Solutions. The goal is to protect access to breast cancer treatment by offering temporary financial assistance.”(Continued on the next slide)
A small operation in its first 7 years, Breast Cancer Solutions eventually grew to hire its first paid employee and rent an office space. The organization’s service area encompasses Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties, and patients are referred by many treatment centers and foundations, including Susan G. Komen and the American Cancer Society.
Each year, Breast Cancer Solutions provides financial assistance to about 200 patients with cancer—that’s about 4,500 people during its almost 20-year existence.
“We help patients cover their rent, utilities, food and transportation costs,” Heather explains. “The last thing we want is for someone to lose their home or not put food on the table because they got sick.”(Continued on the next slide)
To raise the funds needed to support these patients, Breast Cancer Solutions writes grants, runs 2 annual events, and benefits from third-party fundraisers in the area.
“We run a golf tournament every spring, and a cocktail party and silent auction in the fall,” Heather says. “We have a $30,000 fundraising goal for this year’s cocktail party on October 5. Our surrounding community has been generous when it comes to donating prizes and funds and turning out for these events.”
Although not everyone who calls Breast Cancer Solutions qualifies for financial assistance, everybody who needs navigation receives it. The help line is staffed by volunteers trained to listen to the callers’ concerns and offer compassion, support, and solutions.(Continued on the next slide)
“We do as much research as we can on available resources in the area, so we know what to recommend for patients in need,” Heather says. “Whether the caller is within our service area or not, we want to be a resource and support system. In fact, we’ve helped people as far away as Israel and Latvia.”
Heather herself needed extra support when a routine mammogram once again found breast cancer in 2004. She had a full mastectomy and chemotherapy—and plenty of support while she recovered.
“When I was diagnosed again, I had a large network of people behind me, because I had spent time in support groups,” she says. “Not everyone has that kind of help, though. That’s the gap Breast Cancer Solutions continues to fill for patients with breast cancer in California and beyond.”
The Song Must Go On
Melissa Marshall chalked her symptoms up to trouble with her hip and age.
A longtime Atlantic City singer and performer, Melissa’s hip had become so painful that she was preparing for hip replacement surgery. She thought that the other symptoms she was having at the time—bowel irregularity, bloating, rectal bleeding, and pain—were a result of turning 50 and her reduced physical activity.
But when she described the symptoms to a close friend before a planned hip replacement surgery, she realized something else might be afoot.
“She didn’t even let me finish my explanation,” Melissa recalls. “She told me to get off the phone right away and call my doctor. Before that moment, cancer wasn’t even a thought in my mind.”(Continued on the next slide)
Melissa was referred to a colorectal cancer surgeon, who right away performed tests to confirm the diagnosis. The doctor found a tumor the size of a golf ball and tried to excise as much as possible during a colonoscopy.
“If I had ignored it and gone ahead with my hip replacement surgery, the tumor would have continued to grow, and I wouldn’t be alive today,” she says.
In November 2013, Melissa underwent surgery to remove most of her rectum and lower part of her colon. She was also fitted with an ostomy bag that she will use for the rest of her life.
“I’ve always accepted that my ostomy would be permanent, but I noticed that people would pull away the moment I mentioned my bag,” she says. “There’s such a stigma, that many people end up retreating from society.”(Continued on the next slide)
But that wasn’t Melissa’s reaction. On the way home from the hospital after surgery, she had a vision of what is now her foundation’s insignia: a butterfly with a cancer awareness ribbon in the center. She also wrote an anthem called “No You Cant’cer.”
“As I wrote the words, I felt that I was speaking directly to my cancer,” she says. “The song is for people who, through the power of music, find the strength to take on their illness.”
Melissa relied on her friends and family during the treatment period that followed her surgery. She endured 7.5 months of chemotherapy, radiation, and complications from her cancer treatment.(Continued on the next slide)
Through it all, she maintained a passion for her music and her butterfly insignia—2 creations that gave hope and encouragement to others. Her third creation, the No You Cant’cer Foundation, would bring all of her work together.
“The foundation’s funding comes from the sale of my music and butterfly necklaces,” she explains. “Funds are used to print and distribute my educational pamphlet—“It’s in the Bag”—which teaches patients with cancer about life with these appliances and helps to dispel the negative myths surrounding their use. We distribute these pamphlets to doctors’ offices across the country.”(Continued on the next slide)
In addition to her pamphlet, Melissa also hosts a live YouTube series geared toward people getting used to an ostomy bag. Titled “Melissa Marshall’s Bag of Tricks and Ostomy Tips,” the videos detail new ostomy products and offer advice for people who are new to an ostomy bag.
As the No You Cant’cer Foundation enters its third year, Melissa continues to blend her passion for music with her goal of educating and supporting those with cancer and newcomers to the ostomy community.(Continued on the next slide)
In March 2017, her foundation hosted a cabaret with performers from across Atlantic City—an event she plans to grow into a full-fledged concert in March 2018.
“I’ve returned to singing and dancing. And I wear clothes that I wore before, even with my ostomy,” she says. “Nobody would ever know unless I choose to tell them. That’s the message I’m trying to share: that it’s possible to find a level of comfort in your life, even after cancer.”
When an Oncology Nurse Becomes the Patient
You may think that an oncology nurse would be better prepared than others to grapple with a personal cancer diagnosis. But when Susan Saporito, RN, BSN, OCN, sat down with a colleague at their private oncology practice to review the results of her open biopsy, she was stunned to hear she had stage IIA breast cancer.
“When I heard those words, the whole office stopped,” Susan explains. “I really didn’t expect it to be positive; after all, it was just something suspicious that had shown up on a routine mammogram. In that moment, and every moment after, my colleagues rallied by my side and supported me.”
She found herself drawing on her nursing skills as she explained the diagnosis to her 3 children; the youngest was a senior in high school and the 2 others were in college. “The mother of one of their best friends died from breast cancer, so that was their experience with it,” she says. “But as an oncology nurse, I was able to assure them that many other women had been successfully treated and were doing just fine.”(Continued on the next slide)
Getting to that point, though, would prove more difficult than she realized. Susan had a bilateral mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy, but complications arose when a seroma developed in her breast from the reconstruction. This required 6 weeks of intravenous antibiotics and rendered her ineligible for the clinical trial she had joined.
Chemotherapy, too, was much more challenging than she’d expected.
“It causes a fatigue that I can’t even describe,” Susan says. “I once sat in my car outside the grocery store, summoning the strength to go in for a gallon of milk. At one point, I said to my oncologist, ‘We’re not seeing the full picture with our patients, because they put on a brave face when we see them. But this is really, really hard.’”(Continued on the next slide)
Despite the devastating side effects, Susan continued to work. Her colleagues were understanding and supportive, and her patients truly empathized with her, as she did with them.
“After my hair fell out, I would go into work wearing a black baseball cap with a pink ribbon on it, and it was fine, because I was among fellow patients,” she says. “Those patients gave me as much support as I was giving them. It was truly amazing.”
Susan believed to be in the clear after chemotherapy, but a routine colonoscopy at age 50 revealed the opposite.
“I had a cancerous lesion in my colon,” she says. “Fortunately, the cancer hadn’t gone through the colon wall, and I didn’t need chemotherapy. I had a hemicolectomy and a total hysterectomy instead.”(Continued on the next slide)
During this second bout with cancer, Susan continued to work and rely on her colleagues and family for much-needed support. Today, she urges her patients to do the same.
“Women tend to be the caretakers in the family, so it’s hard for us to rely on other people during treatment,” she says. “I tell my patients to please accept any and all help that’s offered, and to put themselves first, and be aware of their own needs.”
In 2014, Susan transitioned to the role of oncology nurse navigator at the Kennedy Cancer Center in Sewell, NJ, where she’s working with breast cancer patients.
“The minute they hear the word ‘cancer,’ everything shuts down,” she says. “Whether I’m seeing them down in radiology for a biopsy or during their first appointment with the breast surgeon or beyond, I know what they’re going through. Having someone like me by their side—someone who’s been through cancer twice and is thriving today—goes a long way toward allaying their fears.”
The Power of Self-Love and Self-Care
Samantha Lozier’s advice to people living with cancer, particularly a metastatic disease such as her stage IV melanoma that progressed to the liver, is to practice self-care. Easier said than done, of course. But because she takes the time to meditate, rest, and turn to her support system on bad days, Samantha is surviving—and thriving—with cancer.
Her journey started in December 2005, when she was diagnosed with ocular melanoma at age 28. “I didn’t even know you could get cancer in your eye,” she says. “I also didn’t understand the full weight of this cancer, which often metastasizes elsewhere. It was just a blur.”(Continued on the next slide)
Samantha’s treatment included radiation localized to the tumor in her eye through implanted metal rings. Her melanoma responded to the treatment, and she remained vigilant about catching melanoma elsewhere.
“If ocular melanoma spreads, it usually goes to the liver,” Samantha explains. “I had regular liver and abdomen MRI scans to check for it. For years, nothing showed up.”(Continued on the next slide)
Meanwhile, Samantha continued to live her life: she moved to Boston, got married, and became a Support Volunteer for Cancer Hope Network, where she completed more than 30 matches—connecting with patients facing a metastatic melanoma diagnosis or those considering similar treatment protocols. But in August 2013, one of her routine scans revealed that the cancer had indeed spread to her liver.
“That would have been awful enough by itself, but then I waited weeks to get my biopsy results, and my pathology report was wrong,” she says. “I’m so glad I got a second opinion, and urge everyone to self-advocate if your care doesn’t meet your needs.”(Continued on the next slide)
Samantha’s first course of treatment with her new team included immunotherapy, because chemotherapy doesn’t work for her type of cancer. She has also had 3 ablation surgeries and a 4-part radiation procedure. Throughout her treatment, Samantha has continued to work as a social worker for an employee assistance program, offering mental health support to callers across the country. She has also maintained an active blog, “You Can Handle the Truth,” which chronicles her treatment and challenges, and offers advice for other people living with cancer.
“The blog connects me to people, and reminds me that even though we’re all on a different journey, we still have things in common,” she says.(Continued on the next slide)
Amidst treatment, work, blogging, and volunteering, Samantha also launched an annual fundraiser to benefit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Jimmy Fund, which raises funds for cancer care and research at the institute.
“I was sitting in the waiting room at Dana-Farber when a screen advertised a mini-golf tournament to benefit the Jimmy Fund,” she says.(Continued on the next slide)
“My husband and I have always loved mini-golf, so we got in touch with them about organizing our own. We just had our third annual tournament with about 70 participants, which raised $18,000 for the Jimmy Fund.”
Samantha credits her ability to juggle all these things to self-love and self-care. That includes meditation, massages, getting plenty of rest, and relying on her friends and family—whom she fondly refers to as “Team Lozier”—to support her every day.(Continued on the next slide)
“Sometimes it’s hard to practice what I preach—and I do struggle from time to time—but I know how important self-love and self-care are,” she says. “In particular, I’ve found meditation to be so helpful. It helps relieve my stress and anxiety. I know it’s not for everybody, but I always tell people to try different things to see what grounds you.”
She also urges people with cancer to allow for the occasional bad day.
“We will sometimes beat ourselves up for being in a bad mood or staying in bed a little later or not eating well one day,” she says. “It’s important to be optimistic at your core, but if you’re being hard on yourself all the time, that’s wasted energy that you could focus elsewhere.”