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Meet the Women Reinventing Local Cancer Support Organizations

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Photo by Adobe Stock

These three organizations help those coping with cancer during COVID-19.

Resiliency, quarantining and uncertainty—bywords of the COVID-19 pandemic—aren’t new to most cancer patients. Immune-compromised from chemotherapy treatments, they’re forced to sequester, and many struggle with work, finances, childcare and the emotional toll of isolation. Even patients who don’t undergo chemotherapy rely on nonprofit organizations to provide expert advice, wellness services, financial support, connection and community.

Living Beyond Breast Cancer, Unite for HER and Connect Through Cancer are among the most active nonprofits providing services in the region. When COVID-19 hit in March, the women leading those organizations were resolute in their commitment to serving patients and their caregivers. “We couldn’t go dark,” says Jean Sachs, chief executive officer of LBBC. “We had to be more visible than ever.”

Sachs and her team took swift action to make their Bala Cynwyd headquarters virtual so they could continue their work. “Our community couldn’t shelter in place,” she says. “They had to go to hospitals for chemotherapy, onco-fertility treatments and appointments relating to reconstructive surgery.”

Breast cancer survivor Sue Weldon is the founder and chief executive officer of West Chester’s Unite for HER. For Weldon, COVID was simply another challenge to be met and conquered. “We went into problem-solving and reinventing mode,” she says. “Our women were still fighting cancer, and we were going to fight for them.”

 

Within weeks, Weldon and her team created Unite for HER at Home, which translates the nonprofit’s services to a virtual format. They created new content, added Zoom sessions, and figured out how to ship Unite for HER’s wellness-based care boxes and deliver six weeks of fresh organic vegetables. “When we put out the statement that we would continue to serve our community from home, our women, nurse navigators and hospital partners were relieved and filled with joy that they had something positive to celebrate,” says Weldon.

Colleen Bucci and her team at the West Chester-based Connect Through Cancer underwent a digital transformation that made the organization 100 percent virtual. From family fun days to Facebook Live sessions, all of the nonprofit’s sessions are now held online. “I even made my son do a bunch of recordings for kids’ story time so we could create a video library that parents can access on YouTube,” says Bucci, the organization’s executive director.

Colleen Bucci | Photo courtesy of Connect Through Cancer

LBBC deployed a similar DIY strategy. “We used to use a whole production crew. Now, it’s turn on the Zoom camera and go,” Sachs says. “One silver lining of COVID is that we’re figuring out how to do things that used to cost money. But they also have to be done well so people participate.”

That hasn’t been a problem. LBBC’s spring metastatic breast cancer conference typically attracted 500-600 in person, with about 1,000 more listening. This year, more than 2,000 attended the virtual conference. “Engagement across all of our channels is higher than ever,” Sachs says.

Held completely online, Unite for HER’s April fashion show raised $115,000, a number close to the $130,000 generated by the 2019 event held at Merion Golf Club. Average attendance for the in-person fundraiser is 375 people; the video got more than 37,000 views. “We couldn’t get over it,” Weldon says. “Our community knew that we were figuring it out, and they supported us through it.”

All those views indicate that these nonprofits have gone national, providing content accessed by cancer patients far and wide. Connect Through Cancer’s six-week “Creative Self Care” series drew participants from multiple states. Unite for HER’s care boxes are now shipped across the country. “COVID forced us into it, but what we built helps us serve a larger geographical area,” Weldon says. “And now, with a virtual model, barriers are broken down and challenges like transportation and childcare are answered because people can participate from home.”

Connect Through Cancer’s team | Photo courtesy of Connect Through Cancer

LBBC is expecting a big turnout for Knowledge Is Power: Understanding Black Breast Cancer, its October virtual conference. The four-part series is focused on the terrible fact that breast cancer death rates are 40 percent higher for Black women than their white counterparts. “We’ll be talking about implicit bias and inequities in healthcare,” says Sachs. “The goal is to begin to build a tool kit for this community to have more control over their care. That, of course, is our goal for everyone in our community.”