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A passion to help

by TRACEY BARNES PRIESTLEY

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, MY MOTHER called me from San Diego. Although she spoke with reassurance and optimism -- always the mom -- her voice was full of terror. She had breast cancer. Clearly, she was confused and frustrated. Most of all, she was terrified. From 800 miles away, I began trying to help her determine the best course of treatment and to find support.

The odds are, you or someone you know will be touched by breast cancer. (Men -- please note that I am not just talking about the women in your lives. Though less common, men get breast cancer, too.) And let me tell you, from what I've learned, if breast cancer strikes you, your family or friends, the first phone call you will want to make is to the Humboldt Community Breast Health Project (825-8345).

This remarkable organization for breast cancer patients provides accurate information regarding diagnosis, treatment options, and a wide variety of support services -- all from women who have experienced this disease.

It came to be established here because of the experience of local physician Julie Ohnemus. After her diagnosis with breast cancer in 1996, Dr. Ohnemus went to Palo Alto for a mastectomy, where she was also introduced to the Community Breast Health Project in Palo Alto. The information and support she received from these women inspired her to do the same for breast cancer patients in Humboldt County.

While Dr. Ohnemus has been a driving force, the collective effort, energy and passion of many women have made this program a vitally important community resource. Mary Scott, R.N., is the program assistant and also a patient navigator. (She and others help "navigate" a breast cancer patient through the complicated and often frightening process of the disease.) Like every other woman in this organization, Mary is a breast cancer survivor. She is also good humored, animated, down-to-earth and passionate about HCBHP.

As Mary filled me in on everything the group does, it became obvious that the volunteers of this grassroots organization had her respect and appreciation.

"Really, if it wasn't for the volunteers, this place wouldn't make it." She convinced me.

All of the funding for HCBHP comes from grants, donations, and tremendous fund-raising efforts. Services are free. What this means is that paid staff totals just two part-time positions. (Thanks to yet another grant written by Dr. Ohnemus, this is about to change with the addition of a program development position.) The majority of the work is done through the dedication and tireless efforts of volunteers. Approximately 15 women make up the "core" work force, with an additional 12 to 15 filling in all of the blanks.

To put their efforts into some perspective, consider what a relatively few, hard-working women accomplished between January and November of this year.

For starters, they made personal contact with current, returning, and new breast cancer patients 1,571 times -- to offer information, resources or support. In addition to this direct contact, they sent letters and brochures to health care practitioners throughout the county; made presentations at medical offices, clinics and service groups; attended health fairs and even farmers markets; and, knowing how critical funding is to the survival of the women they serve, raised money through raffles and musical performances. (Talk about dedication -- for one event, a couple of them actually donned sandwich boards and walked around town, advertising their fund-raiser!)

Why this zeal? As Phyliss, a weekly volunteer, put it, "When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was so scared. Even though I had been a nurse all of my life, it still hit me right in the gut." She went immediately to HCBHP. "It helped to see women with hair, with make-up, looking healthy and happy. I realized there was light at the end of the tunnel. I just had to get through the tunnel." Phyliss began attending the HCBHP support groups every other Thursday night. "It was everything I needed -- women who had been where I was going. Truly, I don't think I could have made it without the support group." After completing chemo and radiation treatments, Phyliss said, "People told me to put it behind me, move on. But I knew I had to give back what was given to me."

Based on her experience with HCBHP, Louanne volunteers so that others may receive "support, comfort, information -- whatever she needs." For Louanne, one of the most significant aspects of her recovery was the outreach from HCBHP. "They would call me just to see how I was doing. It felt so good, knowing someone cares. But it was so helpful to have local resources and women who understood. I didn't have to explain myself. They just knew."

When newly diagnosed Sharon first arrived at HCBHP, she saw "healthy, alive women and I knew I could make it, too." Sharon verbalized what every other woman I spoke with at HCBHP had expressed when asked why she volunteered. "I wanted to do for someone else what had been done for me."

Think about it, just how much good these women are doing for others. It's simply amazing. For my mother's birthday this year, I made a donation to the Humboldt Community Breast Health Project in her name. I was thrilled to be able to celebrate my mother's life as a breast cancer survivor.


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