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Empowerment through awareness

Sarah Dixon

The organization hosts a number of fundraisers every year – such as Friday’s series of lectures and a luncheon – to draw attention to an in order to help breast cancer patients with the medical costs of treatment.

But the group also offers something much more important – support.

“This organization has helped so many women in this valley,” said Vanessa Lewis, a therapist and lecturer for the Shaw Cancer Center in Edwards. “They focus on supplying the women with the tools necessary for self-care. Money becomes such an issue when you’re battling cancer, and this organization has helped so many patients alleviate some of the stress and learn to have fun again.”

Taking control

The theme Friday was empowerment – be it through support, prevention or healing. And feeling empowered, the women and men in attendance displayed fierce determination to battle the illness.

A great deal of focus was spent on prevention and early-detection measures.

“The misconceptions about breast cancer are so prevalent they really lead to the further spread of the illness,” said Sara Sabalka, breast cancer survivor, former Miss Colorado and author of “I Didn’t Know What to Do.” The book, a compilation of true-life stories, is meant to be a “supportive, encouraging and inspirational” resource for people with cancer, as well as people with loved ones suffering from the disease.

Sabalka said she also wants to spread the word about the misunderstandings surrounding the disease.

“I thought only women over 40 with a family history of breast cancer were at risk. I was 27 years old when I learned I had breast cancer, and I have no family history of it,” Sabalka said.

Sabalka was not the only an unsuspecting, unprepared victim of the disease. Misconceptions regarding the “high risk categories’ of people likely to suffer from the disease have misleadingly put many other “categories’ of people at ease.

“What I tell people now is that if you are a woman, and you are getting older each year, then you are at risk for breast cancer,” Sabalka says.

Men shouldn’t think they’re out of the hot water, either. For example, last year’s speaker was a male breast cancer survivor. This disease is not selective, after all, and everyone must be vigilant.

Play is good

Friday’s luncheon is a primary fund-raisers for the Breast Cancer Awareness Group. Several local establishments donated goods for a silent auction, and a raffle raised funds by offering great prizes.

The money raised benefits underinsured and uninsured breast cancer patients in the Valley who simply cannot afford treatment.

“One thing I really love about this group is that they don’t care who these women are or what their background is,” said emcee and local television host Linda Gustofson. “This organization is totally focused on supplying relief to whoever needs it most.”

But the Awareness Group raises money with the hopes of doing more than just helping with medical bills. They want to ease the emotional burden of cancer, as well as the financial burden.

Through a program aptly titled “A Day to Play,” the Awareness Group gives $500 once a year to women currently undergoing breast cancer treatment. The funds can be used to throw a party, spend the day at a spa or see a musical in Denver. Essentially, the program is meant to distract the patients from their health concerns and medical bills and treat them to a carefree, fun experience.

Patients say treating themselves to a light-hearted day of fun is an invaluable practice when battling the disease.

“When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t want to tell anyone because I was afraid that they’d see me differently,” said Sabalka. “I didn’t want my life to change, I didn’t want to stop doing all the fun stuff. And I really didn’t want to be treated with kid gloves.”

That is why Sabalka says she entered the beauty pageant to begin with.

“I am not a pageant person,” she said. “But I wanted to go out there and show everyone that I was still a woman. I am still a woman, even though I lost my breast to cancer.”

Maintaining a “normal” lifestyle after being diagnosed was another focus of the event.

Connie Holden, a representative from the organization “It’s Me Again” manned a display of prostheses and accessories for women undergoing treatments.

“We offer prostheses for women who have had a lumpectomy, mastectomy or reconstructive surgery,” Holden said. “We also offer headwear, turbans and wraps for women experiencing hair loss from chemotherapy. But most importantly, we offer a listening ear.”

A poignant moment

And deep understanding and support seemed, indeed, are at the heart of the event. In the shuttle that bussed attendees from the Vilar Center to the Grouse Mountain Grill, a touching exchange between two women reminded all the riders why the Breast Cancer Awareness Group is such an important cause.

“Excuse me, but didn’t I sit next to you in chemo last week?” asked a woman in a green suit.

“You sure did,” replied another woman with a scarf wrapped around her head. “We both look a whole lot better today than we did then!”

“That was my last treatment. I’m done,” said the woman in the green suit.

“Congratulations. I’m so happy for you,” replied the woman in the scarf.

A moment of silent ensued as the bus full of people pondered this poignant reminder of what support, empowerment and healing really means.


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