Cancer flat-out stinks. Most people who receive a diagnosis of the “C” word spend a fair amount of time crying, and who could blame them? Yet after the tears dry, there is often an overwhelming desire to stand up to cancer and rally for patient support and community awareness. That’s exactly what a group of determined Inland Empire women are working toward by organizing the first annual Southern California Women’s Cancer Conference, scheduled for June. And in an effort to reach out to the Inland Empire Latina community, workshops, keynote speakers, and wellness information will be presented in both English and Spanish.
Some members of the group are survivors. Others are caring volunteers, friends, or family members affected by the inspirational stories of the women behind the effort.
In January 2010, it seemed like Katherine Westley had it all. She was a successful business owner with two grown daughters and a loving husband of more than 30 years. But then her life changed forever. In the spring, she was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer, and before her treatment plan was completely mapped out, the cancer had progressed to Stage 3. Following surgery, Katherine found recovery extremely difficult. She had to reinvent her life in a stress-free environment, which meant selling her real estate firm. “My identity was that of being a business owner and part of my community, and now I suddenly had to learn a new way of life,” she said.
Recruited by her girlfriends and fellow cancer survivors Charlie Meredith and Teresa Rhyne, Katherine began working with The Pink Ribbon Place in Riverside, a nonprofit group providing resources and support to all Inland Empire women and men experiencing breast cancer, and their loved ones. Now chair of The Pink Ribbon Place, Katherine assembled a team of inspiring cancer survivors and volunteers to make sure the needs of Inland Empire women were being met. Identifying a need and finding a solution are behaviors often demonstrated by those who exemplify the American Spirit.
“It’s a horrible disease, but we’re winning,” said smiling survivor Shari Young. A retired RN and part of the SoCal Women’s Cancer Conference planning committee, Shari said she feels like the “big sister” and hopes to motivate other female survivors to implement life-changing skills beyond diagnosis and treatment. She’s working alongside two-time breast cancer survivor Mary Harris. “We are not waiting for things to happen. Now is the time to thrive and be an inspiration for others going through this life-changing illness,” Mary said.
When you help others, somehow your troubles don’t seem as heavy. For 40-year-old Kelly Giddings, it’s therapeutic for her to know she is making a difference in the lives of cancer survivors like herself. “Once you realize there is a support system in the community, you can really start to live,” said Kelly. Three years ago, she was diagnosed as a “triple negative,” meaning hers was a higher-risk, more aggressive form of breast cancer. A single working mother of a teenage daughter, Kelly was terrified, wondering where to turn to find resources. She said, “Even the doctor shed a few tears when we talked about the baseball-sized tumor in my breast.”
While some patients have treatment options, Kelly had just one – chemotherapy – followed by surgery and radiation. It was an aggressive routine, causing her hair to fall out almost immediately. “When I lost my eyebrows and eyelashes, that’s when I felt I had lost my identity and really needed support,” she said. And cancer affected not only her health, but also her career. Kelly nearly lost her job in the male-dominated field of international sales. Once very private about her cancer and recovery, Kelly now shares her story openly and often in an effort to raise awareness in the workplace and make things easier for other cancer patients. She’s also a regular volunteer at The Pink Ribbon Place.
Katherine Westley’s advice to the newly diagnosed is, “You have to be your own advocate and learn to stand up for yourself. Question everything, including your doctors, throughout your entire journey.”
And by all means, check out The Pink Ribbon Place.
EVENT WEBSITE: www.socalwcc.org