15 Breast-Cancer-Inspired Reinventions

These women used their fight against breast cancer as inspiration to launch enterprises—nonprofits and for-profits—to help others.

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Live Your Life Now


Before: Kathy McEvoy worked as a vice president of product development in a financial services company. “My husband and I were living the proverbial good life with two incomes, the benefits that come with that, and we were very involved and proud of our two boys,” she said.


Her Diagnosis: Both of McEvoy’s parents had died of cancer. She found her tumor three weeks after her mammogram when she attempted to wipe a spill off her shirt. On her sternum, out of the mammogram field, she found a tumor. “When I got the call from the doctor and heard, ‘It’s positive, you have breast cancer,’ I immediately went into ‘make a plan’ mode,” she said.


Her Reinvention: While preparing for her first Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, McEvoy searched for pink ribbon papers plates and napkins for a post-walk celebration but couldn’t find any. That inspired her to launch Celebrate In Pink, a company that offers party supplies with a breast cancer theme, giving a portion of her sales to provide financial assistance to women for breast cancer treatment. “To this day I credit my diagnosis as my wake-up call,” she said. “You don’t need a diagnosis to live a more fulfilled life; you can do it now if you choose to.”

Sue Shibley of SJS Photography Dallas, TX

You Are Stronger Than You Know

Before: Fitness instructor and owner of Fresh Air Fitness, Ginger Johnson taught classes outdoors to show women how to use their everyday surroundings to improve their overall health.


Her Diagnosis: At 31 years old and 5 months pregnant, Johnson received a breast cancer diagnosis on Halloween. “I never was one to ask, ‘why me’?” she said. “It’s called ‘life.’ If it’s not one thing, it will be something else. It’s what we do with the adversity we face in life that truly defines our characters.”


Her Reinvention: Johnson founded Happy Chemo, connecting patients, survivors, and caregivers with freebies, discounts and resources provided by pre-approved local and national companies and organizations. “When we choose to look outside ourselves and serve others around us, even though we may be in a very dark place, most people we serve will return that kindness in the form of love and support,” Johnson said. “We will find that our happiness is increased and our personal burdens are lightened.”

Mandee Heslop

Don’t Forget to Laugh

Before: Christine Clifford worked as a senior executive with an international marketing services company out of New York. “I traveled extensively, and was missing out on a great deal of the activities of my growing sons, who were 10 and 8 years old at the time,” she said. “I was married to my college sweetheart, and thought I ‘had it all.’”


Her Diagnosis: When Clifford was 17, her mother, then 38, was diagnosed with breast cancer. “My mom sank into a deep, clinical depression,” Clifford said. Two years later, her husband left her; two years thereafter, she died.


When Clifford received her own diagnoses of breast cancer, she immediately thought, “I'm going to get depressed, my husband is going to leave me, and I'm going to die.”


Her reinvention: Clifford didn’t want her children to grow up worrying that each day might be their mother’s last, so she chose to find laughter instead. She sketched cartoons illustrating the amusing conversations she had about her cancer experience. Her latest book is Laugh 'Til It Heals: Notes from the World's Funniest Mailbox!


She also founded The Cancer Club to market those gift items, and started a celebrity golf tournament which has raised over $1,000,000 for breast cancer research. “I felt like I was giving back, since I had received the gift of survivorship,” Clifford said. “Often people don't understand when I call it a ‘gift’. But it changed my life for the better: I started my own company; I learned I had creative things inside me I never knew existed, such as writing books; I have traveled the world sharing my story of finding humor in the journey with hundreds of thousands of people.”

Keri Pickett

The Gift of Choice

Before: Sandy Rabourne worked in advertising for a home/garden lifestyles magazine in San Diego. “I had a wonderful, supportive husband, and had no thoughts of being diagnosed with breast cancer so young in life,” she said.


Her Diagnosis: Rabourne was only 35 when she received her breast cancer diagnosis. After chemotherapy, she lost her long red hair. "I felt robbed of my youth when I went into premature menopause from all of the medication," she said. "I began to feel like at least I was young enough to handle the medicine and had faith that my body could rebound."


Her Reinvention: She began volunteering for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Breast Cancer Foundation in San Diego. “Having breast cancer helped me to revisit a dream I had for my life,” she said. “I had always wanted to work for a nonprofit or a charity and make a direct difference in the lives of people.” Shortly thereafter, she was hired by the organization as their Director of Development and Community Outreach. “I was honored this year and last year to be nominated as San Diego Magazine’s Woman of the Year, but that honor should be shared with all the brave women that our organization helps and all the staff and the many volunteers who are part of the organization.”

Thomas Denlick

Lose the Chains of Your Old Life

Before: Laura Farmer Sherman worked in a stressful corporate job, was divorced, dating the wrong guys, and unhappy. “I was spending a lot of money on shoes and stuff to fill up an emptiness, a sense of disconnection,” she said.


Her diagnosis: “I struggled to find the will to live,” she said. “My therapist had me write my own obituary as the person I was realistically.  Then, she had me write my obituary as the person I really wanted to be.  They were completely different.  Becoming that ‘other’ person became my will to live.”


Her reinvention: She began volunteering on behalf of her three great passions in life: Art at the Mingei Art Museum in San Diego; animals at the San Diego Humane Society; and women’s health (Susan G. Komen for the Cure). “After my diagnosis, I realized that the old adage is true: ‘The true path to happiness is in being in service to others,’” she said. Komen hired her as an Outreach Director, and then promoted her to Executive Director.

Take Control of Your Life

Before: Krista Davila worked as a director of information technology. “I always felt like I spent a very long time working hard for other people – but not for myself,” she said.


Her Diagnosis: Davila spent years in high risk breast clinics, and even turned vegetarian for a few years out of concern about hormones and chicken. “My mom died of bilateral breast cancer at age 53, when I was 29,” she said. But when Davila became pregnant unexpectedly at age 38, followed by an intentional pregnancy at 40, she felt she must have been spared. “But finally, the nagging feeling that maybe I should just check on my newfound “spared-hood” for validation pushed me into an appointment that would turn out to save my life,” she said. “I wasn’t spared at all.  To quote my oncologist, ‘I’m glad you’re here, you really need to be.’”


Her Reinvention: Davila had always wanted to run her own business. “Suddenly, it seemed like it was now or never,” she said. She called on FranChoice, an agency that educates entrepreneurs on franchise ownership, to help her sort through the maze of opportunities. Earlier this year, she opened Floor Coverings International in North Raleigh. “The fact that I could do all the work to open my own business while recovering from treatment and coping with surgical menopause really has made me feel like I can do anything,” she said. “I’m still a work in progress, not knowing for sure what the future brings, and now my business is, in a sense, reconstruction itself.  I’m living in the moment, loving it, and so glad I took the leap.”

Courtesy of Krista Davila

Conquer the Fear

Before: Cherie B. Mathews worked for IBM in Research and Development, and then became a teacher so she could spend more time with her family.


Her Diagnosis: With no history of breast cancer, 15% body fat and a fitness fanatic, Mathews was stunned by her breast cancer diagnosis. “I became very angry, like an intruder had broken into my home and threatened to kill me and harm my family.”


Her Reinvention: When the time came for her to leave the hospital after a double mastectomy, she was advised to wear a loose-fitting man’s shirt. Shocked to realize that there were no attractive, roomy clothes for women to wear while healing from their operations, she founded Heal in Comfort, a company that sells garments allowing women to be comfortable and maintain their dignity while healing.

Korey Howell photography

Spreading Hope

Before: Barbara Hensley, an executive at a large Minnesota company, lived on a lake with her husband and two sons. “My job was fun and challenging,” she said. “I loved going to work and truly enjoyed the people I worked with.”


Her Diagnosis: While Hensley never had breast cancer, she lost her sisters Kathy and Patsy to the disease. “When Kathy called to tell me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, I was in shock,” she said. “It never occurred to me that she might die from the disease.” Six months later, her sister, Patsy, called to say she had been diagnosed with breast cancer as well. “I knew enough to be really scared,” Hensley said. “It was like a kick in the stomach.” After Patsy died, Hensley decided to undergo a preventative mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.


Her Reinvention: Hensley became concerned about breast cancer patients who had small children to care for and support. How did they manage, she wondered. “I knew how awful the disease was,” Hensley said. “But I had never really thought about how bad it would be not to know where the next rent payment was coming from or how to feed the children.”

As a legacy to her sisters, she quit her job and founded The Hope Chest for Breast Cancer to provide emergency assistance to under-served and financially challenged breast cancer patients, paying rent, utilities, transportation, and child care while in treatment.  They also deliver Hope Chest Meals that Heal.


To fund the emergency assistance programs, The Hope Chest has independently owned retail stores that sell upscale furniture, decorative accessories and designer woman's clothing that is all donated.  To date, they’ve provided over $1,000,000 to local breast cancer patients.  “I am still so very sad that my sisters are not here with me and their families, and I always will be,” Hensley said. “However, I truly believe they are up there saying, ‘You go girl!’ and cheering me and the Hope Chest on.”

Silas Crews

Learning Curve

Before: Lockey Maisonneuve worked as a personal trainer. “As a personal trainer, it’s all about our body,” she said.


Her Diagnosis: When she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, she felt her body had betrayed her. “My breast surgeon, Diana Addis, gave me the best advice. She said, ‘This will be a bad year for you, but in five years you will be fine. You will look back on this and remember it as a bad bump in the road.”


Her reinvention:  During her recovery, Maisonneuve says she felt as if she walked around with basketballs taped to her chest. But she was afraid to stretch or do strength training. “I thought, ‘If I’m a personal trainer and I’m lost, I can’t imagine what other patients and survivors are going through trying to get back to exercise,’” she said. She founded MovingOn, rehabilitative exercise classes for breast cancer survivors. “My proudest moments are when a class member smiles and says ‘I finally feel better,’” she said. “I’ll never say I am happy for cancer, but I am very happy for the things I’ve learned, as well as the people I’ve helped and met throughout the last five years.”

Brianne Falisi, Falisi Photography

Working Through Anger

Before: Susan Sparks spent ten years as a trial lawyer before she followed a call to become a minister, and a stand-up comedian.


Her Diagnosis: While finishing seminary school, she received her breast cancer diagnosis. “I found myself quite angry at God,” she said. “Over time, I found that anger with God was just like working through anger in any relationship. Eventually there was a slow sense of rebuilding and personal reconnection.”


Her Reinvention: In her ministry, she gives presentations to both secular and religious organization, including hospitals as well as health and wellness conferences, on humor and healing. She also wrote a spirituality book, Laugh Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Humor. “Laughter can be found in the most unexpected places, from the operating room to the chemo waiting area,” Sparks said. “It empowers us to transcend the pain and see beyond our circumstances, to remember who we are and what we have.” 

Tom Grill

Stop and Smell the Roses

Before: Dr. Lynda Veto worked as a jet-setting media therapist, with two children at home. “I was woman who thought she could do it all,” she said.


Her Diagnosis: Dr. Veto worked out five times per week, and had no familial history or genetic predisposition. When she received her diagnosis, she felt there must be a message in it. “I asked the Universe to make this message clear to me so that I could learn and pass on my knowledge,” she said.


Her reinvention: After her diagnosis, she made it her mission to live a positive life. “It put a huge spotlight on the people in my life and quickly determined who should stay and who should go,” she said. And she changed how she practiced psychology. She created Permititude, an empowering life plan she offers on-line, in person and through her speaking engagements. “I help people realize the blessings in their lives,” she said. “The biggest truism is that people accept negativity in their lives and all around them as if it is the Natural Order of things.”

Valerie Ramos-Ford

This Too Shall Pass

Before: Showgirl Alisa Savoretti left Las Vegas to return home to Florida where she founded RetroHome.com, offering fine furnishings and collectibles from deco to disco, while working full-time as an event planner.


Her Diagnosis: She found a lump in her breast in August of 2001, but didn’t see a doctor until November when her friend insisted. “I had no idea of the roller coaster that was yet to come, what it was like to be sick and uninsured.”


Her Reinvention: Because she didn’t have health insurance, she couldn’t afford to have her breasts restored. “I was single, disfigured and depressed, yet because my new business wasn’t off the ground, I had to get a job,” she said. Five months after chemo, she returned to the Las Vegas stage with a padded costume, billing herself as, “The Lop-sided Showgirl.” And her group insurance policy covered her reconstruction surgery. “It was nearly three years from the time I lost my breast until the time it was restored,” she said. But her fight caused her to found My Hope Chest, a non-profit organization dedicated to funding breast reconstruction for uninsured breast survivors. “For me, cancer came with a job and I truly believe God has chosen me to do this work,” Savoretti said.  

Courtesy of My Hope Chest

The Blessing of Weight-gain

Before: Beth Gold Cohen did fund raising for a medical organization while raising her two daughters.


Her diagnosis: When Cohen received her cancer diagnosis, she realized there was no time to waste. “I was scared to death,” she said. “I wanted to make each day worthwhile.”


Her Reinvention: After Cohen’s battle with breast cancer and her chemotherapy treatment, she’d gained so much weight that she could no longer fit into her clothes. With a needle and thread, she sewed together her favorite leggings and a high-waist control undergarment. That gave birth to Lisse’ Leggings, which are sold in over 1500 stores nationwide. “Starting my company has given me the ability to give back more than I was able to before my diagnosis,” she said, as she donates a portion of her proceeds to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

Brett Matthews Photography

Time to Act

Before: Catherine Cohen and her husband own Premier Barter, a barter exchange that allows companies to swap products and services, rather than spending cash for them.


Her diagnosis: When Cohen found her lump, she knew it was breast cancer. “I think I shocked the heck out of the surgeon when I said, ‘Alright, fine. Now I need to live to be 100 years old,’” she said.


Her Reinvention: Cohen had always thought the software Premier Barter used to run its barter exchange was terrible. ”Before my diagnosis, I would think and complain but now I was going out and taking the bull by the horns on everything,” she said. She and her husband launched a new additional company, BCL Soft, that develops barter exchange management software called Barter21. “Since my cancer, I am less tolerant of wasting time.”

Crista Aldridge

Everything Can Be Rescheduled

Before: Michelle Morey ran a family business, Magnetic Products & Services, while raising two boys with her husband. “I was in a great place, but ironically feeling like I needed to find a way to give back to the community,” she said.


Her Diagnosis: When Morey found out she had breast cancer, she was devastated and scared. “My best friend had been diagnosed with breast cancer two years prior, so I knew what was in store,” she said. “It's the one situation where I think ignorance is bliss.” 


Her Reinvention: Her best friend, a single mom of three, wasn’t able to work during chemo. “Fortunately, a group of us stepped in to get her through a temporary financial crisis – because that’s what this usually is – a temporary financial crisis,” Morey said.


Morey and her husband decided to donate money each month to help a patient who was struggling. “Some of the money was used to turn a patient’s water back on,” she said. “Because her water was turned off, child services was required to remove the kids from the home.”


Morey realized her family’s monthly donation wasn’t going to be enough, and founded Pay It Forward, raising $1.5 million, helping over 500 patients with essential and medical expenses. “I think a lot of people come through a cancer diagnosis wanting to give back in some way, or do something about cancer, or just something different or more meaningful with their life,” she said.


Jennifer Jeanne Patterson is a freelance writer and author of52 Fights. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and three children. Find her blog at Unplanned Cooking.


Related: Celebs Who Survived Breast Cancer


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Michelle Morey

First Published Mon, 2011-09-12 10:59

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