Breast Cancer Survivor Spotlight
For as long as she can remember, Denise Mack had been hypersensitive about breast health. She'd experienced her mother's, grandmother's, aunt's, and cousin's battles with breast cancer, and knew the importance of annual breast exams and follow-up visits. But in March 2003, after undergoing a routine biopsy, Denise, then 49, received the painful news that she, too, had breast cancer.
"I was shocked," she said. "I was just so used to being told not to worry since my tumors were always non-cancerous — that if I stayed on top of it, I would be just fine."
At the time, Denise was working at a hospice health care facility in New York City, where she took care of elderly patients, many of whom also had cancer.
"To me, cancer was directly related to death. It's what I saw everyday. When I heard my results, I immediately thought I was going to die too. It was horrible."
But through her journey of diagnosis, chemotherapy treatments, recovery, and a total mastectomy and reconstruction, Denise discovered how "blessed she truly is" to have such a strong circle of support.
"It was so scary, but I never had to go to a doctor's appointment alone," she said. "My friends, family, and coworkers were fantastic — I always had somebody around me, and it really helped me get through it all."
This year marks nine years that Denise has been cancer-free. She's now retired, having worked for 36 years, and is pursuing her new passion: volunteering with cancer patients at the Albert Einstein Cancer Center in the Bronx.
"It was just a great opportunity for me to give something back. To help somebody else out there who was going through this," said Denise, who, though she had a strong support system, said it would've been nice to have someone who could relate to her experience when she was first diagnosed.
Denise is involved in two programs at the Albert Einstein Cancer Center:
- the Be Bold Buddy Program, which is partially funded by the Avon Foundation for Women. As a patient navigator, Denise provides support and helps patients navigate the maze of the health care system.
- the Bold Healthy Living Program, which helps breast cancer survivors and patients who are at risk for diabetes.
"It's been very rewarding to volunteer — to be there for someone," she said. "People feel like they need to be strong, that they need to be in control all of the time. But there will be days when they are down. I tell them that that's okay. Just don't stay there."
Since beating breast cancer, Denise has developed a whole new outlook on life, and on herself.
"I just don't stress over the small stuff anymore. I walk away and let it go," she said. "And I've realized that I am beautiful in spite of what someone else may think. I am more confident. I've learned to love, like, and accept me."
Breast Cancer Survivor Spotlight
Before taking my first steps at the New York Avon Walk in 2012, most of my friends and family did not know I was a breast cancer survivor. In 2009, when I was 42 years old, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was in shock. Could this heartbreaking disease really affect someone so young? I was embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, so for three years I kept it a secret, only telling those closest to me.
When I signed up for the Avon Walk, I was still hiding my secret. While fundraising, I told donors I was walking in memory of my grandmother, a survivor of both breast cancer and Auschwitz. It wasn’t until I was at the Walk, surrounded by thousands of empowering women and men of all ages wearing “survivor” caps, laughing and smiling, that I finally was able to find the strength within to share my story of survival.
Following the Walk, I came out of hiding and signed up to participate in three 2013 Avon Walks: Houston, Santa Barbara, and New York. I decided to use my fundraising efforts as a way to spread awareness, especially to young women.
When I need inspiration, I think of my grandmother, which gives me strength to stand up to anything. I will forever be indebted to the Avon Foundation for Women and the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer as they have both changed my life for the better and I am now proud to say it out loud: "I am a breast cancer survivor."
Breast Cancer Survivor Spotlight
Since being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, Jenny Saldana has completely changed her life. She’s quit her corporate job, pursued acting and writing full time, and devoted herself to helping others — especially younger Latino women like herself — battle the disease.
“Having gone through everything I have, I just feel this need to serve others who’ve been touched with cancer,” said Jenny, who now works as a part-time patient navigator at New York Presbyterian Hospital (NYPH), home to one of the eight Avon Comprehensive Breast Care and Research Centers of Excellence, which are located at leading academic medical centers throughout the United States.
Since 2000, the Avon Foundation has awarded $21.5 million to NYPH for breast imaging services, breast health outreach and education programs, breast cancer clinical trials, and patient navigation services. Avon Foundation funding ensures these services are available to underserved and underinsured populations.
Jenny works with NYPH’s Women at Risk (WAR) initiative — a research, education, and support program for women who have breast cancer or who are at high risk for the disease. She helps breast cancer patients navigate through the often complex medical system, runs WAR’s Latino support group, and helps underserved women in upper Manhattan access free mammogram and screening events.
Jenny has been attentive to her own breast health since she was a young woman, when her doctor told her she had fibrocystic breast disease, or “lumpy breasts.” She always followed her doctor’s orders, and grew up performing self breast exams to identify any new or abnormally-sized lumps on her body.
In the winter of 2006, at 34, she noticed a growing lump in her breast and immediately scheduled an appointment.
“Getting the right care was a very frustrating process because no one at the clinics took me seriously,” she said. “I was young and had no family history of breast cancer.”
But the lump kept growing, and Jenny’s breast began to leak discharge out of the nipple. Finally, her gynecologist sent her to NYPH for a biopsy. A day later, Jenny received the news that the lump in her breast was in fact cancerous.
“I got that call, and I thought I was going to die,” she said. “I thought I would die in a few months.”
Even though her breast cancer was caught early, Jenny had both breasts removed due to the size of the mass.
“It’s crazy, but at the time, I was more devastated that I was going to have to lose both of my breasts than I was about the actual diagnosis,” she said. “I just didn’t understand how this all was happening to me.”
Part of Jenny’s concern with reconstruction had to do with breast implants, so NYPH doctors offered her another option, the Transverses Abdominis Myocutaneous (TRAM) procedure. Rather than implanting silicone or saline breast tissue, breast reconstruction from the TRAM uses fat from the stomach as filler for new breasts.
“It is just the coolest surgical procedure ever,” she said. Jenny underwent the 10-hour surgery within two and a half weeks of her diagnosis.
Today, Jenny is “very proud of the work that NYPH surgeons performed” on her, and she shows her reconstructed breasts to newly diagnosed patients.
“I say, ‘Look at me. I was treated at this hospital, I am six years cancer free, these are my doctors, this is my team, and I’m here and want to be with you and help you understand everything that’s going to happen,’” she says. “It is such a fulfilling experience because I personally didn’t know what to expect when I was diagnosed. And to be the person there for them, to see a level of peace wash over their face — it is very rewarding.”
Domestic Violence Survivor Spotlight
Avon Representative Shaundre shares her personal story of witnessing domestic violence as a child. Growing up in an abusive household, Shaundre and her siblings witnessed countless acts of violence perpetrated by their stepfather against their mother. Eventually the violence escalated to a final act of terror on the day Shaundre's mother was beaten and stabbed to death in her home.
Today, Shaundre speaks out for all children who don't have a voice, and who often go unnoticed when violence is carried out in the home.
Millions of children witness violence in their homes each year, and studies indicate it is particularly detrimental for a child's development when he or she witnesses abuse of a parent or caregiver. Witnessing violence between one's parents or caregivers is also the strongest risk factor of transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next.
The Avon Foundation has been providing grants to domestic violence direct service providers for nearly 10 years, and many programs we've funded incorporate children into their work. While we are proud of our work thus far, we know there's much more to do to end this epidemic, and that many more children and families desperately need help in their own homes.