By Mikayla Gardenhire

As women, we’ve all heard of it. We’re all aware that it’s out there, and none of us are prepared to hear the words “You have breast cancer.” There is a concept that most of us believe that although the disease is not uncommon, it’s not going to be us. We’re all under this idea that if we stay healthy, eat right, and exercise occasionally, cancer isn’t in the cards. Unfortunately, sometimes regardless of how healthy our life decisions are, we still cannot control the cards we are dealt. Nobody thinks it is going to happen to them, and even if we are not oblivious to the possibility, it is unreasonable to think that we can ever really be prepared to hear this devastating news.

For many women, being diagnosed with cancer is the scariest experience they’ve ever had to face. This is not only because of the preconceived notion around it, but also because for many, it is the first time they’ve ever been faced with their own mortality. Nobody wants to be thought of as a statistic, but when one is told the percent chance they have of living, that’s exactly what they feel like.

As someone who has never experienced breast cancer for myself, in no way can I say that I understand the feelings and events that breast cancer survivors must deal with daily, but after talking to survivors (some who wished not to be named), I was able to grasp a small amount of the challenges and emotions they had to conquer. The original diagnosis causes a bit of shock and disbelief. For some, it may even cause them to question their medical team. Has a mistake been made? Could I really have cancer? The diagnosis may onset the five stages of grief, not only for the victim, but for their loved ones as well. Families tend to experience feelings of helplessness and sometimes even guilt due to the fact that there really isn’t much they can do to help their loved one with cancer. Some of the words they use to describe their feelings during their original diagnosis include: devastated, confused, discouraged, angry, and broken.

They also talk about the huge decisions that they were expected to make in the blink of an eye. These decisions involved expenses and treatments that would affect them for the rest of their lives. People underestimate the effects cancer can have on a person, even if they conquer the disease.

I ask both survivors for any advice they would give to someone battling breast cancer. One says that “breast cancer is not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally draining, so although it is important to try and be positive, it is also important to let yourself mourn. Sometimes it is okay to not be okay.” They also stress that the medical team and the colleagues that you surround yourself with make a world of difference. If you know someone who has battled cancer before, it may help to talk to them as well because they might be able to connect with you. They say that it’s important to keep your faith strong and do your research. Everybody seems to have advice, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should take everybody’s advice.

In the moment everyone likes to stress positivity. “‘Be optimistic,’ is something I heard a lot of,” one survivor tells me. “I understand that people mean well, but it’s definitely easier said than done. I found that sometimes, I just needed to let my emotions happen.” She does recommend some strategies to help stay positive though in times of discouragement; “I made a board of things to look forward to, and I found hobbies that didn’t take a lot of energy to keep myself busy.”

Today, Melissa Greenwood is a five-year cancer survivor, who is very open about her breast cancer experience.

Prior to being diagnosed, Melissa had regular mammograms and no family history. Three months after having a normal mammogram, she found a lump in her breast. She went into the doctor, but really was not expecting it to be anything due to her lack of risk factors. When asked about the emotions she felt during her original diagnosis, she describes it as life-changing and devastating. “Initially, when I got that phone call, I looked at it as life ending,” she says. She also stresses that immediately following her original diagnosis, she felt like doctors were throwing options at her and she really didn’t have any time to think about her decisions.

Her lump was too large for a lumpectomy so she ended up opting for a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction at the same time. The reconstruction process took over 6 months in itself, and she was going through chemotherapy at the same time.

Not only did this process take a toll on her, but it affected her family as well. “The most difficult part was telling my parents. They were in their 80s and they were dealing with their own mortality so I felt like I was going to burden them,” she says.

When asked about advice for someone going through cancer, she stresses that a lot of women find the need to act like everything’s fine, but it’s important to talk about your feelings and experiences as much as you need. She also says the most important thing is to not go through it alone; “There are lots of communities around that offer support and prayer and there are blogs online that you can read. Get all of the support you can.”

Nothing can make an experience like breast cancer easy on a woman, but thankfully, there are organizations around the state that are willing to help. There are fundraisers, support groups, and survivors in the community who are passionate about getting resources to those who need them.

Chouteau County Cancer Support Group

If you or someone you know has gone through cancer and feels like they need someone to talk to, the Chouteau County Cancer Support Group is an excellent option.

Karyn Giles is one of the founding members and a breast cancer survivor herself. She says the group was started when she and a couple of other survivors got together and discussed how blessed they were to have conquered the challenge of breast cancer. They wanted to find a way to help other people, specifically with getting through their original diagnosis, which she says was arguably the hardest part.

The group typically meets once a month, about eight months out of the year. Their meeting places change monthly with hopes of making the group more accessible to people around Chouteau County. During their meetings, survivors are able to share their stories, listen to a presenter, and hear advice from other women who have been in their situation.

The group runs on donations, fundraisers, and the Lippard-Clawiter Grant, which supplies them with their admin costs. This grant makes it possible for the group to guarantee that 100% of any donations will go directly to cancer patients. The group also receives donations of quilts from the community to keep cancer patients warm and comfortable during chemotherapy.

Karyn says, “We cycle about $10,000 per year through the group due to the generosity of the community. When a cancer patient is referred to us, we give them a quilt and $200 to cover the expenses of travel, food, or whatever else they may need.”

For more information about the Choteau County Cancer Support Group, call (406) 622-3834.

Breast Cancer Awareness

Breast Cancer Awareness (BCA) is a group that raises money to pay for the publishing of informative, easy to understand breast cancer booklets that help women and their families. These booklets are approved by the Great Falls Clinic and are available at the Great Falls Clinic, the northwest Albertsons in Great Falls, the City County Health Department, through local cancer groups, and at the What Women Want event in October.

Hope Good, who started Breast Cancer Awareness, got her inspiration when she was unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer. She had gone to the doctor for a completely unrelated injury, so you can only imagine the shock she was in when she found out she had breast cancer. She managed to stay positive through it all though. She wanted to take her experiences and provide support to women going through the same thing. She says, “When you’re diagnosed with cancer or any other disease, you have no time to prepare.” She stresses that in situations like this, you are expected to make huge decisions in the blink of an eye. She remained positive during her experience and used her insight to write a book to inform others in the same situation. Some of the advice she says she would give to someone going through the fight against breast cancer is to “fight for your life. Don’t ever accept a death sentence if you can fight for your life. Follow your body, do what you believe, and always get a second or third opinion.” She stresses that you know your body better than anybody else does, so if something doesn’t feel right, don’t be afraid to communicate with your medical team, and if necessary, find a team that makes you more comfortable. Today she is a two-time cancer survivor who is very passionate about volunteering for the cause.

BCA holds two fundraisers a year for the publishing of informative booklets and other awareness campaigns. Art Competing for Causes is a fundraising event held at the WHA Art Show during Western Art Week. This Saturday evening event (on March 23, 2019) includes a Silent Auction, Quick Finish, and a Live Art Auction. Collectibles for Cancer (C4C), which is also known as Collectibles for Christmas, is now in its eleventh year. This one-day (Saturday) event will take place on October 20, 2018 at the Great Falls Holiday Inn. It includes a huge variety of unique gift items and baskets, plus arts and crafts. All items can be purchased (at “Buy It Now” prices) or bid on in the silent auction which goes from 9am-5pm.

For more information on Breast Cancer Awareness or either of its fundraisers, call (406) 868-9649.

Think Pink Tea

Think Pink, founded in 2012, is a group of women who have all been impacted by breast cancer either personally or through a loved one. Their goal is to raise money and awareness to help pay for costs of treatment and prevention of breast cancer. This is a one-of-a-kind, registered nonprofit charitable organization that runs on donations and the support of local businesses.

The group works with many other resources around the area as well, including Sletten Cancer Institute in Great Falls, Women Against Breast Cancer (WABC) in Great Falls, North Central Cancer Support Fund in Choteau, and Komen Idaho Montana Affiliate.

They host a major event annually (every October) called the Think Pink Tea. The event includes coffee and tea, lunch, dessert, raffles, games, and two speakers–a cancer survivor and a medical professional. They raise money by selling tables to women who would like to sponsor or host a table during the event. It is the sponsor’s responsibility to invite friends and attendees to sit at her table. She can invite up to seven guests per table. The sponsor brings dishes, tablecloths, silverware, etc. and has the opportunity to decorate her table any way she’d like. The attendees are welcome to dress up according to the theme chosen for their table.

The money raised is almost always kept in the local community. Seventy-five percent of all proceeds are given to women to help them pay for preventative and diagnostic services such as mammograms, biopsies, second opinion visits, prescriptions, wigs, and breast prosthetics. It also helps pay for unexpected bills like daycare, food, and medical expenses during chemotherapy, along with travel, meals, lodging, and other costs related to testing and procedures. Not only does it help with these personal needs, but 25% of the proceeds are also donated to help fund educational programs and research.

If you’d like more information on this fun event or to get in touch with the women behind the group, visit thinkpinkmt.webs.com or find them
on Facebook.

Chicks in Chaps

Chicks in Chaps is a women’s rodeo clinic that was started by a woman whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her inspiration came a few years back when she was in a grocery store. She walked past a sign advertising a specific product that claimed a percentage of the proceeds raised went to helping women with their fight against breast cancer. She thought the idea was great but was concerned because her mother had never received any help from fundraisers like those so she wondered where exactly the money was actually going. From then on, she was dedicated to creating a fundraiser that would keep the proceeds local and directly help women in her own community.

She generated a fundraiser to teach women about the sport of rodeo. It consists of a clinic in which bull riders and cowboys brief women and educate attendees about what they do. They have a simulation that allows women to safely try bull riding and other events that you would see in a typical rodeo. They also teach the women about the humane treatment of the animals. The event doubles as a fundraiser for breast cancer and also a great way to promote the sport of rodeo. The event is marketed as a “ladies day out” and a “wine and dine” where women can learn about the sport of rodeo, eat dinner and enjoy some wine as well. The event is followed up with live and silent auctions, raffles, and music.

The event started in Missoula in 2008, but has now spread to Oklahoma, Texas, California, Idaho, and many other states. The beauty of this event is that all of the proceeds stay in the community in which they were raised. It is unique in that prospective beneficiaries must apply, and the money is directly given to the chosen applicants so there is no question as to who is benefiting from the proceeds. As of 2017, the fundraiser surpassed a total of $1,000,000 raised and donated to cancer survivors nationwide.

To learn more about this event or to get involved, visit chicksnchaps.org or call (406) 531-0058.

Survivor’s Boutique

The Survivor’s Boutique, located in Helena, is a local store that focuses on the needs of cancer patients. They sell anything imaginable that a cancer survivor might need.

The back of the store is filled with prosthetics, bras, swimwear, and clothing, focusing on anything a woman would need after going through a mastectomy. The front of the store is more geared toward chemotherapy and radiation, specifically hats and wigs.
The owner of the boutique got her inspiration when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. During this time, she says she had difficulty finding products at affordable prices because there was really no place in the state that carried what she needed. While vacationing in Arizona, she ran into a little shop that was really a catch-all for cancer supplies. She loved the idea so much that she decided to open up her own shop in Helena.

The business is very unique because although they are the biggest retailer for cancer patients in Montana, their main goal is not to sell the product; their main goal is to serve as a resource for cancer survivors. They want to make women feel comfortable asking questions and talking about the struggles they are going through. The store is a place that cancer survivors can go to relate to someone who has been in their shoes. The owner of the boutique says, “I want to be able to help women who are going through possibly the hardest experience of their life.”

If you would like more information about the boutique, visit survivorsboutique.com or call (406) 422-0898.

Bikers for Boobs

Bikers for Boobs is a yearly fundraiser that takes place every summer. It is a poker run, and the cost of attendance is $10. Bikers come from all over the country to support the cause. The event starts at Big Sky Harley in Great Falls, where participants are served a hearty breakfast. From there they ride all over the state, making stops to play poker at five different locations along the way. This year they rode all the way to White Sulphur Springs, making stops in Monarch, Townsend, and Wolf Creek, before ending back in Great Falls at the Flamingo Bar.

At every stop, there are high/low prizes available for poker, 50/50 tickets, a silent auction, and door prizes. There are also T-shirts for sale, designed and donated by local artists. The event runs almost entirely on donations from the local population, and 100% of the money raised is donated to Women Against Breast Cancer (WABC), a local organization designed to help women fighting against breast cancer.

The fundraiser is run by three women, Nikki Long, Sonya Childs, and Kristin Heikkila. Originally the fundraiser was started to support a friend who participated in the Susan G. Komen run in Seattle. They supported that cause for two years and the third year, they donated the proceeds to a local mother who ended up losing her battle to cancer. After that, they wanted to continue to keep all the money local, which is why they chose to give the proceeds to WABC.

This year marked the ninth anniversary for the Bikers for Boobs fundraiser. Sonya estimates that over the years, the group has given over $30,000 to support local women dealing with breast cancer.

For more information about the fundraiser or to donate or participate, find them on Facebook.

Women Against Breast Cancer (WABC)

WABC is a local organization out of Great Falls that dedicates a lot of time and resources to helping women who are fighting breast cancer. The organization was founded in 1998, making this their twentieth year fighting for the cause.

Sue Bridgeford is one of the founding members. The organization was formed in a unique and somewhat unexpected way. The women of the group were all avid golfers, and they noticed there weren’t many women’s tournaments in town that offered cash prizes. They decided they wanted to start one, but they wanted the proceeds to go to charity. At the time, they had a friend who was fighting breast cancer, so they thought what better charity was there than to help women fighting breast cancer?

During the first year of the fundraiser, they donated all of the money raised to Susan G. Komen, but the next year, they earned their status as a non-profit organization, and they began donating the funds directly to individuals who were affected with the disease.

WABC offers an application for breast cancer patients to fill out if they need funds. The form is available at Benefis Hospital, the Great Falls Clinic, and the Cascade County Health Department. Recipients can use the money for a broad spectrum of services, including mammograms, prosthetics, wigs, travel expenses, and more. Sue says, “We want recipients to be able to use the money to enhance their quality of life, along with their medical needs.”

The organization donates an average of $10,000-13,000 every year to help women during their life-changing fight against breast cancer. They work with other organizations in the area as well, like Bikers for Boobs, Run for the Cause, and Save the Tatas.

For more info, call (406) 781-1356.

Resources

Clinic Cancer Care3000 15th Avenue South
Great Falls, MT 59405
(406) 454-2171

Benefis Sletten Cancer Institute
1117 29th Street South Suite 400
Great Falls, MT 59405
(406) 781-8200

Great Falls Clinic Specialty Center
3000 15th Avenue South
Great Falls, MT 59405
(406) 454-2171

Great Falls Surgical Associates
400 13th Avenue South
Suite 102 Benefis West
Professional Building
Great Falls, MT 59405
(406) 455-2970

Montana Plastic Surgery Center, PC
1600 9th Street South
Great Falls, MT 59405
(406) 727-6363

Great Falls Plastic Surgery
Benefis Medical Group
400 13th Avenue South Suite 206
Great Falls, MT 59405
(406) 455-2821

Great Falls Clinic Physical Therapy
3000 15th Avenue South
Great Falls, MT 59405
(406) 454-2171

Benefis Spectrum Medical Inc.
2906 10th Avenue South
Great Falls, MT 59405
(406) 727-9322

Clarks Orthopedics
816 9th Street South
Great Falls, MT 59405
(406) 452-8428

American Cancer Society
1903 Central Avenue
Billings, MT 59102
(406) 256-7150

Montana Cervical Breast Cancer Screening Programs City County Health Department
115 4th Street South
Great Falls, MT 59401
(406) 791-9272
(406) 454-6751

Montana Cancer Control Programs
1400 East Broadway
Helena, MT 59260
(406) 444-4599