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Cancer Survivors Come Back Strong & Give to Others

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month Staff Report

Pink Ribbon

The pink ribbon is the symbol for breast cancer awareness.

CONSUMER BRIEF: Some breast cancer patients not only beat the disease but lead more productive lives than before receiving the diagnosis. A notable few go on to create organizations that help, comfort and inspire newly diagnosed women.

When Marion Luna Brem was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 30, she never thought it would eventually lead to her becoming a multi-millionaire.

But back in 1982, the news was not good. Diagnosed with breast and cervical cancer, Marion had one breast removed and received the best available treatments. Nonetheless, she was told she had only a few short years to live. After her chemo treatments were completed, her husband's medical insurance ran out, forcing the family of four deeply into the red. Then her 14-year marriage ran onto the rocks. It may seem like a dire tale of woe, but in the midst of it all, Marion adopted an usual attitude.

"Courage isn't a gift," she is fond of saying. "It's a decision." She means she was not born a brave, aggressive person but that circumstances - having two youngsters but no income - forced her into taking courageous action.

Wearing a wig because chemo left her bald, Marion, then 32, applied for car sales jobs because she had operated the switchboard at a dealership where she noticed salesmen talking almost exclusively to the husband while ignoring the wife. But Marion also knew it was the wife who approved or nixed 80 percent of vehicle purchases. Although she had no experience nor education beyond high school, Marion landed a sales job after 17 rejected applications and - using her insight into who really controls a family's purse strings -- became the top salesperson for the next two years. At 36, she found investors and formed her own dealership, Love Chrysler in Corpus Christi, Texas. Since, she has opened yet another car dealership, (Love Chrysler-Jeep in Alice, Texas,) penned two books, ("7 Great Truths about Successful Women," and "Women make the Best Salesmen,") and has a major interest in a minority bank. Her company, Marion Enterprises, with revenues over $45 million, is ranked 89th nationally on the Hispanic Business 500. While Marion's other honors and awards would fill a telephone book, she has been cancer free since 1992. Moreover, she frequently gives talks to newly diagnosed breast cancer patients and often tells how to convert the downturns in life instead of just coping with them. Another top speech she often gives is "Courage is a Decision: Wake up in the morning, have a meeting with the mirror and say, 'Today I'm going to be courageous!'"

While history is full of comebacks, the common thread that runs through the personal stories of many breast cancer survivors is refusing to be defined by their afflictions. Many are showing what scientists call resiliency, the ability to rebound from terrible adversity.

"Nobody is born naturally resilient," says psychologist Al Siebert, Ph.D., book author and operator of The Resiliency Center in Portland, Oregon. "Resiliency is an ability a person develops as he or she learns a combination of strengths."

Thus, people with strong resilience accept the trauma as a part of life - but only one part. Unsinkable people have a life that goes beyond the trauma and often gladly helps others. Many are calling it "the power of pink."

 Kristy-Adams-Ebel of Carolina Breast Friends

Kristy-Adams-Ebel of Carolina Breast Friends

Kristy Adams-Ebel of North Carolina also did not want to be defined by breast cancer after a bilateral (on both sides) mastectomy, breast reconstruction and chemotherapy.

"I tried the so-called support groups but each turned out to be a 'pity party,'" Kristy told "After hours of listening to 'Woe is me!' I actually felt worse."

But Kristy works in pharmaceutical sales and knows the best outcomes in all medicine are related to people who have the best educations. So, she wondered if -- instead of endlessly bemoaning the cruel fates - could breast cancer patients get together with experts and think of ways to make their lives better? That led her to forming Carolina Breast Friends, an organization focused on education, encouragement and friendship.

"For instance, a woman should be prepared when being tested for the BRAC-1 gene which indicates high likelihood of developing breast cancer," Kristy says. "If the test is positive, should she have a prophylactic mastectomy? Should she have children?"

Newly diagnosed women at Carolina Breast Friends learn it is okay to be angry, fearful or emotional at first.

"There are many stages and ranges of emotion a newly diagnosed woman goes through," Kristy says. "But the idea is to get to place where you can intelligently fight the disease. So it does no good to get stuck at any one level of emotion."

Andrea Caruso, a New York breast cancer survivor and registered nurse, lost her left breast and later had it rebuilt with her own abdominal tissues. During treatment, Andrea met other amazing survivors - a champion baseball player, a professional trainer, and marathon runners, among others. What to do with 12 attractive, outgoing, talented women who just happened to have breast cancer in their past? Why, what else but put them on a calendar!

"These are a dozen power women who are easy on the eyes, have amazing personal stories and refused to let breast cancer rule their lives," says Andrea who founded Sensational In Survival (S.I.S.) in Penfield, New York. Besides making calendar girls of breast cancer survivors, S.I.S., a non-profit organization, supports patients and survivors.

"By providing loving guidance, funding, care and knowledge, we help patients regain their dignity and self-esteem as well as emotional and physical beauty," says Andrea.

 Lori, the Sensational in Survival calendar girl for August

Lori, the Sensational in Survival calendar girl for August, 2006, is a police officer who mountain bikes and kayaks.

After Alisa Savoretti, 42, of Las Vegas, had her right breast removed, she underwent chemo and was soon in remission. But when she started looking for some help with reconstruction, she found none because she had no health insurance when she had the mastectomy.

Alisa has performed as a Las Vegas showgirl, dancing in Moulin Rouge and La Cage Aux Follies in which she danced with one breast in 2003. She now owns an internet business and has devoted the last two years to building My Hope Chest, a new, nonprofit organization that helps breast cancer patients find reconstruction.

"For two years, two months and 22 days, I walked around with one breast," Alisa says. "But I found caring and compassionate plastic and reconstructive surgeons who will help."

Alisa found a top surgeon to do her reconstruction and talked him into reducing his usual fee by explaining how hard it is for women without health insurance to find reconstruction help.

"A typical reconstruction surgery can cost from $15,000 and $25,000, including the anesthesiologist and surgery center," Alisa says. "But I found surgeons who will consider charges of $5000 to $15,000 for members in our organization."

For instance, when a plastic surgeon in Vermont read about My Hope Chest, he emailed Alisa, offering to donate. Other surgeons have offered to perform the necessary procedures for no charge at all.

"The trick is link knowledge of the women's need with surgeons, hospitals and community organizations," says Alisa. "The lowered fees would then be covered by donations."

The Palms Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas offered free use of its facilities for My Hope Chest's first big fund raiser.

When Tracie Metzger of Cincinnati, Ohio, was diagnosed with cancer in one breast at age 34, she decided to have the other breast removed for peace of mind and so that her reconstructed breasts would be symmetrical.

 Alisa Savoretti

Alisa Savoretti, of My Hope Chest.

But during the extremely involved procedures, Tracie discovered most support groups in 2001 were for women in their 50s and 60s, a group whose child rearing days were long past. Living with cancer and its aftermath while having toddlers at home was what Tracie was most interested in discussing. Eventually, she found other younger breast cancer patients in her area and went on to co-found Pink Ribbon Girls, a web-based support and education organization for patients in their 20s and 30s.

"The day after I issued a press release, we had three women talking about coping with breast cancer, child rising and having a young husband," Tracie says. "Five years later, we have 300 such women in three chapters with another in Florida forming."

Additionally, the organization sends flowers, arranges meals, and talks to the newly diagnosed almost daily. They support families, transport women who are in treatment, and connect the newly diagnosed with other women who have had similar diagnoses. They send members to community organizations to tell the public how breast cancer affects women of all ages.

"We promote the importance of monthly self-breast exams," says Tracie. "Pink Ribbon Girls realizes that, until there is a cure, we must all do our part to educate women about this disease and focus on early detection.

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