For the girls

For the girls

The Official Blog of Here for the girls

, February 13, 2018 | More Post by

At Here for the Girls, we are not an advocacy group — however, we absolutely encourage our supporters and our survivors to equip themselves with knowledge about laws that affect them and to become strong advocates for their own health. In order to help our blog readers do these things, we invited our friends at the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation (VBCF) to share their knowledge and information about their advocacy efforts so far this year with the Virginia General Assembly.

In February 1991, five women met in an MCV support group. Stunned by a lack of research and progress in breast cancer treatment, they planned a Mother’s Day Rally at the Virginia State Capitol to bring attention to this devastating disease. The activist seeds of the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation (VBCF) were sown that day, and VBCF was incorporated as a 501c3 non-profit in October 1992. VBCF seeks to educate Virginians about breast cancer to encourage screenings to improve early diagnosis and treatment outcomes and to advocate for improved public policy to enable Virginians affected by breast cancer to receive the best quality of healthcare while on their treatment journey. We work to provide Virginians with knowledge and a voice when affected by breast cancer.

Each year, VBCF hosts a breast cancer advocacy day at the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond with training for volunteer advocates so that state legislators hear directly from their constituents impacted by breast cancer. At our January 30, 2018 Advocacy Day, our breast cancer advocates met with over 20 state legislators to make their voices heard on the following legislation:

VBCF Priority Legislation 2018:

Increase Access to Healthcare for ALL Virginians – Support for HB 348

Expanding access to health insurance through Medicaid expansion will mean that more women will be able to secure breast cancer screenings and treatment. Every month Virginia loses an average of $142 million in federal funding. Since 2014, the Commonwealth has forfeited over $10 billion in federal funds, which could have been used to help uninsured adults, hospitals, and businesses. Most states have expanded their Medicaid programs. While Virginians suffer without coverage, 31 states and the District of Columbia are providing health insurance to uninsured adults. Those states are seeing significant health and financial benefits.

The Latest: Current debate centers around adding a work requirement for those receiving Medicaid.

Use of Medical Cannabis for Cancer Patients – Support for HB 1251, SB 726.  Based on The National Institute of Health’s National Cancer Institute information, “the potential benefits of medicinal cannabis for people living with cancer include antiemetic effects, appetite stimulation, pain relief, and improved sleep.”  HB 1251 and SB 726 provide for a practitioner to issue a written certification for the use of cannabidiol (CBD) oil or THC-A for the treatment or to alleviate the symptoms of any diagnosed condition or disease.  These bills in one form or another provide an affirmative defense to prosecution for possession if a person has a valid written certification issued by a practitioner for CBD oil or THC-A oil. Under current law, only the treatment of intractable epilepsy is covered by this defense.

The Latest: As of 2/5/18, both bills were passed by their respective chambers. Since the bills are identical, the steps forward are largely procedural: the bills will “crossover” to the opposite house for a vote, before heading to Governor Northam’s desk for signature. Governor Northam, also a doctor, is already on record in support of “Let Doctors Decide” medical marijuana laws in the Commonwealth. Passage of this historic legislation would make Virginia the first state with a hyper-restrictive program to adopt such a broad expansion.

Improve Protocols for Step Therapy – Support for HB 386, SB 574 to make step therapy better and safer for Virginians – Step therapy occurs when a doctor prescribes a medicine, but the insurance company requires the patient to try alternate, cheaper drugs first, with no clinical justification. Step therapy can delay patient access to medication, causing adverse reactions and allowing their health to deteriorate. HB 386 and SB 574 put an online process in place for health care providers to request overrides for step therapy protocols for patients for whom the insurer- mandated drug is clinically determined to cause adverse health events or be ineffective, as well as those who have already met step therapy requirements and ensures that providers are notified in writing if their request is denied.

The Latest: On 2/1/18, the House Commerce and Labor subcommittee voted to recommend to the full committee that HB 386 should be “passed by indefinitely” meaning the bill is dead for this session. On 2/6/18, the House Finance Committee voted to recommend that SB 574 be “continued until 2019 in Finance” meaning it will be considered during the next General Assembly session.

If you would like to actively support breast cancer legislation at the state and national levels, SIGN UP FOR VBCF’S ADVOCACY ALERTS. These brief email alerts are sent periodically – when your advocacy is needed the most. The Alerts will keep you up to date with the latest breast cancer legislation and provide the tools and information you need to take action.

, February 11, 2018 | More Post by

Our “A Calendar to Live By” features 11 survivors we serve through Here for the Girls programs and their inspiring, uplifting stories about their cancer journey. Get to know this month’s model, Laura! (If our calendar isn’t hanging on your wall right now, click here to get one.

Laura, Ms. February

37, Diagnosed at 34

3rd degree family history – known genetic mutation

In September 2014, Laura awoke one day with an odd feeling. A small voice in her head told her to do a breast self-exam. She raised her right arm and, indeed, felt a small bump. That same inexplicable voice—call it intuition—prompted her to call her doctor. Just one day before her 34th birthday, this loving wife, mother of two and government project assistant found herself in a patient room waiting for her OB/GYN to examine her breasts. Assured it was probably nothing serious, Laura was referred for a mammogram. One week later, she was diagnosed with stage I breast cancer. Laura tested positive for the BRCA1 breast cancer gene and learned after her father was tested that he carried the gene also. By the next month, she’d had a bilateral mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and a total hysterectomy. Laura credits her faith, family and friends—and all of her “sisters” at Beyond Boobs!—for helping her through. “I was shocked when I went to my first support group meeting and felt all that love, and then I was blown away when they showed up at the hospital—after just one meeting! The Boobers! were there for me and have been ever since.”

, January 25, 2018 | More Post by

Each month this year in our Monthly Message email, we’re sharing a writing prompt with our readers. This month’s prompt had to do with “bucket lists.” We select a few entries to appear here on our blog, and each month we will also draw a random entry to win a $20 Amazon gift card! If you don’t receive our Monthly Message program news email and you’d like to sign up for it, visit our website hereforthegirls.org and scroll to the bottom. Below is one entry we selected from this month. Note: Veronica’s post originally appeared in her blog, “Solar Gypsy,” and is shared here with her permission.

Not long after I finished surgery, chemo, surgery, radiation, surgery, surgery, post-op infection with emergency surgery, surgery, and final surgery… I was faced with the dreaded “new normal.”

If you are someone who has:

  1. earned your unofficial medical degree in preparation for doctor’s appointments,
  2. saved up for new flooring in your old house, only to find yourself spending all the funds on co-pays for prescription medications that cost more than a used car, but don’t really take away all your symptoms,
  3. learned to recognize a stranger in the mirror who keeps changing, or,
  4. all of the above,

then you probably know that rushing river called the “New Normal” flows throughout everything during all the cancer activities, but gets especially choppy after active treatment ends.

The river New Normal swirls with a mix of fluffy white water that’s fun and comes in the form of relief that the grueling torture (read treatments) are over or that you now have energy for a short vacation, but around the bend, that same fun white water changes quickly and nefariously traps you under the rocks of anxiety when a symptom shows up and you don’t know if it’s a headache because work is driving you crazy or brain mets. Sometimes the river of New Normal is calm and pleasant as you drift along just happy to have hair again and then other times there’s some storm, like laboratory tests, that causes the waters to change when the results are unexpected or slightly abnormal becoming big tree limbs in the water that you have to carefully steer around them as they could be dangerous.

For me, navigating that New Normal river required finding a sweet spot in the boat that’s my life. I had to discover that delicate balance needed to navigate the ever elusive “living for today, while still planning for tomorrow.” After active treatment and surgeries ended I was unsettled and, like many of my cancer friends, I came in and out of a few philosophies to inspire resiliency while picking my way through the rocks, rapids, and eddies of the river of New Normal.  One thing that came into focus for me was the idea of a Bucket List.

People regularly talk about bucket lists and fantasize about trips or purchases and those sorts of things, but when it comes down to it, many people don’t really act on those ideas.  In my opinion, people usually don’t act because of two main reasons: (1) deep down people are scared of change/the unknown and/or trying daring things, and (2) they always think there will be more time. However, if you are like me, and you have really studied to understand those SEER survival statistics and made life decisions based on those at an oncologist’s office, signed a 20+ page release about all the bad things that might happen in the future as a result of the treatments intended to cure you today (hello heart failure and leukemia as not-so-rare side effects), and your on-line support group friends start dying, you really start to re-evaluate the things that truly scare you and the idea that there will always be more time.

While that overall thought process was beginning to dig its way into my brain, like most every young adult facing a serious health condition, I was just trying to keep a normal life together. I never really wrote down my bucket list before cancer because, let’s face it, I was just working, raising my son, getting groceries, going to soccer games, etc.  Having had a child when I was only 20, I also felt that I was a long way off from getting the freedom from day-to-day life to even really daydream about what would go on my bucket list. Was it an interrupted afternoon nap or an epic trip? I think that most of the time one’s current life sort of dictates the dreams one believes are even remotely possible. I mean, if I was only dreaming of a house that stays clean for more than a few hours, then I couldn’t even begin to fathom setting up a loftier goal like trekking in Nepal to Everest Base Camp (yes, that made it to my Bucket List & got checked off!).

However, it was during this period of coming to grips with the fact that I might not really have plenty of time left, but I also still had to keep my normal life in tact that I decided: 1) I really did need to figure out what I really did want and literally write down some bucket list items, and 2) my bucket list didn’t have to be stable, it was fluid and I was allowed to change my mind to remove things that no longer drew me in or add things that were newly discovered passions or ideas.

So I decided to make my Bucket List in PENCIL. To me that felt like a compromise and a way to be able to erase things that might prove too difficult if my health failed and they wouldn’t mock or hurt me. Now, 11+ years post diagnosis, I’ve checked off about half of those original items. I’ve removed some entries over the years that no longer interest me and I’m always adding things that spark my interest.

Meeting and marrying my current husband is one of the best things I’ve checked off my Bucket List although it wasn’t exactly worded that way on the list. Moreover, he’s helped me check off a bunch of things on the list too so he’s had a multiplier effect. A few years ago, I made one of the biggest additions to my list after several daydream-type talks with my husband: to take off work for a year or so after he retires from the Navy to travel the US and Canada in an RV. This item on my Bucket List started as a tiny seed about what it would be like to travel uninterrupted for a while, finally considering that one day I might make it to a real retirement age. That seed flourished into a real item on the list and plan with my husband that we would travel the US and Canada in an RV.  But that nagging river of New Normal coupled with my age and BRCA1+ mutation had me thinking: could we really wait until we were in our 60s? We pondered the pros and cons of all sorts of ways to accomplish this item on my Bucket List. My experience with cancer, helped us land on the decision that we really couldn’t wait for many reasons, but mainly because good health and physical strength was necessary to pursue the work involved and assure the activities we would want to do along the way.

Today, we are now less than 160 days away from departing on this epic Bucket List adventure that has spawned its own sub-bucket list of places to go and things to see and do. That sub-bucket list isn’t written in pencil in my old purple journal, it’s a spreadsheet with links and dates and ideas but still maintains the spirit of being flexible as if it was in pencil.

If you are reading this as a newly diagnosed person or as someone trying to navigate that swirling river of post-cancer life, I hope this gives you some insight into how I approached a Bucket List and you can take time to figure out what works for you and know that your Bucket List can be as rigid or as flexible as you desire. You list crazy adventures like caving (yup, did that too!) or really achievable regular life things that others my take for granted (like seeing my son graduate from high school – yes that was a big item to check off!).

-Veronica M.

, January 22, 2018 | More Post by

Each month this year in our Monthly Message email, we’re sharing a writing prompt with our readers. This month’s prompt had to do with “bucket lists.” We select a few entries to appear here on our blog, and each month we will also draw a random entry to win a $20 Amazon gift card! If you don’t receive our Monthly Message program news email and you’d like to sign up for it, visit our website hereforthegirls.org and scroll to the bottom. Below is one entry we selected from this month.

One thing on my list that I have done is work with children, teaching them to become magnificent people.

As a child I wanted to become a teacher, but life went in another direction. When I graduated high school, I realized I  could not afford to complete college on my own so I joined the military. I told myself and others it was for the opportunity to travel, and for twenty four plus years I traveled the world. It took a very long time to complete a degree that I could use to transition into the civilian world of teaching. I was in my forties when I completed my bachelor’s degree. Traveling the world and learning about different people was a wonderful experience. So much so that I did not really think about teaching for a very long time. As I progressed in my military career I was called upon to transfer my skills to the people who would one day replace me. Yes, I became a teacher/instructor, trainer. For several years before I retired I trained others in military professional development. My students were not children but, most of them were just starting their careers in the military and I was there to help guide them to a successful military career.

When I retired from the Air Force in 2005 I was asked to become a part of  an  amazing program at a then all boys military academy. The school was about to enroll their first ever female cadets and I would be one of the first female Tactical Officers. My job was the care and well-being of each young lady attending this school. It was more than just a job. I was there when they returned from classes in the afternoon and was there for many of their first experiences. First time away from family and friends, first boyfriend, first heart break etc… I was there to teach them how to deal with so much that life would send their way. As a mother of boys I was thankful for the experience since I did not regularly deal with issues that girls of their generations faced. It was a learning experience for all of us.

After two years as a Tactical Officer I decided to take the plunge. A real teacher in a real classroom with students who required more that extremely well timed pep talks. There were lesson plans, text books, homework, and lectures. My first school was in an underserved neighborhood with kids who had to struggle just to get to school in the mornings. They were dedicated and determined and we showed up every day.

I have been in a classroom now for the past nine years.   love teaching. It is what I was born to do. I work with some of the most amazing children in the world.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014 my students kept me going. I would not have been able to fight as hard as I did if it were not for the support of my students. They challenge me and I appreciate the people they become each day. Teaching gives me something new to look forward to every day.

I can’t say that I have crossed it off my bucket list. Each new year brings with it a new set of students and a new adventure to continue to fulfill my dreams.

-Hope S.

, January 08, 2018 | More Post by

Our “A Calendar to Live By” features 11 survivors we serve through Here for the Girls programs and their inspiring, uplifting stories about their cancer journey. Get to know this month’s model, Newsha! (If our calendar isn’t hanging on your wall right now, click here to get one.)

Ms. January: Newsha

41, diagnosed at 39

1st degree family history – no known genetic mutation

Preparing to move your family to a new city is a huge strain. Imagine in the midst of it, finding a lump in your breast, as happened to Newsha! During testing, she wasn’t too worried. “I didn’t think this would turn out to be cancer,” she recalls. So when diagnosed with stage II triple positive breast cancer, she was shocked and terrified but immediately found herself embraced by family and friends, including her mother, a breast cancer survivor. After moving to Richmond with her husband and young daughter, she began treatment—chemotherapy and a double mastectomy with reconstruction—and was embraced by the Beyond Boobs! group there. Newsha, who is from a large Iranian-American family, learned what a generous and thoughtful community she has. “Family, old friends, new neighbors, and my BB! group taught me what is paramount in life: relationships, family and friends. I also learned the valuable lesson of accepting help, which has always been a struggle for me.” Now Newsha is quick to reach out to new members so they too feel welcomed and supported, especially if they’re new to the area. Choosing to be a calendar model was a way for Newsha to challenge herself and celebrate her strength.

, October 26, 2017 | More Post by

Fine jewelry company ALOR has been a supporter of H4TG for several years. Here, they share why the company is Here for the Girls:

The younger generation is our future, we at ALOR see importance in that. Here for the Girls take young women under their wing to give support to those affected by breast cancer. Can you imagine being in your twenties and finding out you have this disease? No, neither can we. Being young and hearing the word cancer would scare anyone. It can be hard or even intimidating to reach out to others to express what you may be going through. Women can receive the help they need through this organization, which is why we wanted to be a part of it.

Here for the Girls, in our eyes, is like an extended family. Yes, these young women with breast cancer have families of their own but it is great to have outsiders who understand as well. To have this resource to reach out to others with breast cancer can be easier than a talking to an immediate family member. Having someone there for you who understands what you are going through gives you a feeling of comfort. With the combination of family and Here for the Girls, you have an abundance of support and love.

We at ALOR want young women to not feel alone when it comes to the dark side of breast cancer. Being young and experiencing life on its own is scary, but throwing in this type of curve ball is devastating. We want the curveball to feel like an obstacle that you can come out of on top. Here for the Girls showed us the light and their overall mission to help these young women in more ways than imaginable is why we chose to become a partner.

, October 20, 2017 | More Post by

Welcome to our “Pink Link Stories” blog series! These stories are from women who are a part of (or support) Here for the Girls’ virtual Pink Link community for breast cancer survivors (pinklink.org). Each quarter, we offer a new writing prompt — this quarter, we asked women to share their thoughts about breast cancer awareness. We will publish a few of those entries* here (lightly edited for length and typos).

I am a 12 year survivor and even after all that time, I will never forget the devastating phone call 12 years ago: “Mary Jo, I am so sorry to tell you this, but you have breast cancer.” Those words changed my life and changed my life forever. Those words changed my life in the most wonderful way. I couldn’t have said this at the beginning, but because of all the love and support I received from God and many, many friends, I learned what life is really about! It’s about supporting one another through love and realizing that our purpose here has nothing to do with “stuff” and all that.

Each October when Breast Cancer Awareness month arrives, it’s a beautiful reminder to me of all the love and support I received. It reminds me, once again, to be there for others — through prayer, personal contact, a supporting note or a phone call. It reminds me to share my heart in loving ways because life is short. Hearing the words, “you have cancer” reminds one of their mortality. So, I use my time here on earth, to love others and to be that support system we all need.

Sadly, this month a best friend of mine was diagnosed with triple negative, stage 1 breast cancer. I thank God that I have walked the road before her and now I can be the source of love and support she desperately needs right now. The struggle is hard and so very frightening when it begins.

Pink… a color that is beautiful and a color we relate to breast cancer. That color, though, always reminds me of the journey… the struggle and the blessings this tough disease brings.

-Mary Jo

, September 29, 2017 | More Post by

Freddi N. is the teenage daughter of a previous H4TG blog contributor; she shared this essay with us since it related to our current Pink Link Connect blog contest asking survivors to share their thoughts on genes and breast cancer.

“You are too young to worry about this.” When my physicians brush off my fears about cancer and my risk, I can’t help but feel like a prisoner on death row, anticipating the worst. Knowing too much about cancer can be good and it can be bad. Knowing what the future has in store for you can shape your present as well. Inheriting a genetic mutation that puts you at an 85% potential likelihood of developing breast or ovarian cancer is daunting. My mother and my maternal grandmother both tested positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation, which unfortunately indicates that I have a 50% likelihood of inheriting the gene mutation as well.

Men and women with this mutation tend to develop cancer at an early stage in life like the members of my family.  Knowing that I have a 50% chance of inheriting the BRCA mutation, I will educate myself on the depths of this mutation, explore my family’s genetic inheritance and investigate ways in which I can decrease my risk factors.

In my quest to unearth as much information as I possibly could about BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, I have found that, if in fact I do have the mutation, I have an 85% chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer at an early age.  While the general population tends to have only a 25% chance of breast and a 17% chance of ovarian cancers, my genetic makeup raises my odds quite considerably.

In fact, BRCA mutations are found most amongst members of my heritage, Ashkenazi Jews. Everyone possesses the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene but a woman’s risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer is greatly increased if she inherits a deleterious mutation in the BRCA1 gene or the BRCA2 gene. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human genes that produce tumor suppressor proteins. These proteins help repair damaged DNA and, therefore, play a role in ensuring the stability of the cell’s genetic material.  If you have a mutation, you lack the proteins essential for cellular reparation. In my case, since I am too young to be tested, when I am of age, I plan to meet with a genetic counselor.

My maternal grandmother was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer at age 66. It was metastatic and her life expectancy was 18 months. During that time, she was tested for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations because her mother and family history suggested that there was a causal link to these mutations. Eight months after her death, at the age of 42, my mother was diagnosed with stage 3C breast cancer. She was asked about her family history of cancer and quickly remembered that her mother was tested for BRCA and was positive. She was told that she had a 50% chance of also inheriting the mutation. Her mutation was BRCA2.

In order to lower her risk of recurrence, my mother underwent a radical bilateral mastectomy with Tram Flap reconstruction, six months of chemotherapy, radiation and a total hysterectomy, lowering her risk to only 15% reoccurrence. In addition to a family history of breast cancer that automatically increases my risk, my family’s genetic background must also be taken into account when assessing my future actions or inactions. My paternal grandmother had colon cancer and both my grandfathers had advanced prostate cancer. These cancers are all linked to the BRCA mutation putting me at a greater risk…85 plus percent.

Studies have shown that no risk reduction strategies exist for children and therefore testing for the BRCA mutation may not happen until I am 18. This was a hard pill to swallow for my parents who resisted this ideology and sought research programs by major universities that are conducting studies on early risk reduction strategies for children of BRCA positive parents.

When I turned 16, my parents informed me that although we were not actually going to test to see if I had the BRCA mutation, we were going to be taking precautions for both my brother and I to reduce risk. A healthy diet and plenty of exercise can be the first line of defense against cancer and practically every disease. My dad is a certified nutritionist and he uses his expertise to guide our family. My mother is living proof that a good outlook and a healthy lifestyle can galvanize and propel you to live life to the fullest. I will not let the fear of the unknown paralyze me and will instead use all the tools available to ensure that cancer does not stand a chance in my body.

Throughout my life I have witnessed cancer take lives. On the other hand, I have seen the bravery and courageousness of my mother’s battle. I know now that I have a greater risk of getting cancer due to my inherited genetic makeup. This could serve me poorly and leave me depressed and fated or ultimately bring me closer to appreciating consciousness, spirit, life, healing and help me to become very clear about what I want from my life. If I am one of the “85 percent” I have already won the battle.

-Freddie N.

, September 14, 2017 | More Post by

Melissa Weaver and the Good Health Fairy (a.k.a. H4TG Co-Founder Rene Bowditch) at the Pink Carpet Gala 2017.

Melissa Weaver, a current volunteer and Boober! who was also a volunteer group facilitator for Beyond Boobs!, shares why she’s Here for the Girls:

I was broken, battered, and bald, and that’s when the my love affair with Beyond Boobs! (Here for the Girls) began. I had just received my second dose of “the red devil” when I attended my first BB! retreat. It was at this magical place that I learned, for the very first time, that I was no longer alone. Don’t get me wrong, I had an amazing support system, but as any breast cancer survivor knows, until we have walked the road we cannot fully understand the terrain. I do not know if it was the food, new friends, or fantastic weather, but I knew that I was finally home.

The concept of time takes on a very different meaning after cancer. The desire to go one more year without receiving a visit from the stalker and the need to have the beautiful moments of life frozen forever happens simultaneously. Through this uncertain journey, this amazing organization has been a constant presence and source of unwavering support. These women truly understand the special challenges faced by individuals receiving a cancer diagnosis. We have traded conversations about shopping for shoes for conversations about selecting the best breast surgeon. Instead of chats about the latest hair style, we are discussing the latest wig options. Don’t be fooled though, we laugh, we cry… and we sometimes do talk about shoes.

The truth is we are forever changed and will forever be tied to one another. When you meet another cancer “thriver” you instantly feel a connection that is deep and life changing. Beyond Boobs! was a lifeline at a time when I was drowning in the idea of an uncertain future. It was through this organization that I found a purpose, passion, and place in this ever changing landscape.

-Melissa

, September 04, 2017 | More Post by

Jeff Morrill is H4TG Co-Founder Mary Beth Gibson’s brother. Here he shares why he’s Here for the Girls:

Schopenhauer said that talent can hit a target no one else can hit, but genius hits a target no one else can see.  Mary Beth Gibson, co-founder and executive director of Here for the Girls, is the latter.  And I would know, because she’s my sister, and I’ve been observing her successes for a lifetime.

After surviving cancer herself, Mary discovered the enormous needs of a population of young women reckoning with breast cancer, and she decided to do something (actually a lot) about it.  With the focus, tenacity, and ambition of a Silicon Valley start-up, she and her co-founder, Rene Bowditch, started from scratch and created an organization that would be there for the girls.  But ultimately it’s not about Mary—because her vision and effort have inspired a legion of women and men to join in the mission.  Collectively, they do so much for so many people…delivering love and services for people navigating terrible circumstances when they need it the most.

I am here for the girls because I am one of the legion who has been inspired by my sister.

-Jeff