• Breast cancer is the number one cancer in women in America, with as many as 240,000 new diagnosed cases each year. Breast cancer casts a wide net and is widely covered by our media with good reason. However, the month of October can often overwhelm empathizers with a sea of think-pink, non-profit organizations. It can be quite intimidating to those who want to offer a helping hand, but have no idea where to start. Organizations like HERS Breast Cancer Foundation help distinguish themselves by working within our local community with an outreach that can be felt on a more intimate level.

    The HERS Breast Cancer Foundation was established in 1998 by a team of dynamic women: Tricia J. McMahon, Cheryl A. Maloney and Nancy J. Vital. The founding trio includes a breast health consultant, a fund-raising executive, and a tax consultant who is also a breast cancer survivor. Motivated by their concern for women and the high incidence of breast cancer, along with the lack of specific services for breast cancer survivors, a vision for a foundation was created. 1.

    HERS Breast Cancer Foundation provides a vital network of support to breast cancer survivors at a most vulnerable time in their lives. After treatment has been successful and they start on their journey to recovery, the HERS foundation provides those women with post-surgical prosthesis, unlimited resources and communal support, regardless of their financial situation. 2.

    We would like to give a special thank you to, Vera Packard, Executive Director of the Hers Breast Cancer Foundation for granting us this intimate look into this organization.

    GY: Can you start by telling us how you differ from the larger breast cancer organizations, such as Susan G. Komen and the American Cancer Society?

    VP: Absolutely! Organizations like the American Cancer Society and others you mentioned are wonderful, but they differ from us because they are on the national level. They have access to wide media coverage and they have the ability to reach higher donation levels and larger sponsors. That enables these larger organizations to pair directly with pharmaceutical companies for funding continued research. Which is wonderful. However, these national organizations tend to focus solely on diagnosis and treatment.

    At the HERS (Hope, Empowerment, Renewal, Support) foundation we focus on the rebuild of the survivor. We take care of the survivor right here, right now. We are a local foundation that assists them with coping with the, “what now” after treatment has been successful. We help our women feel good in the body they have now. Which in most cases are drastically different after treatment. We do our best to reframe the diagnosis of breast cancer, changing the perception to a positive by offering them specific services that pertain to their immediate struggles.

    GY: What acquired knowledge do you value from your years as a breast cancer surgeon, and how have you applied that to your work with the HERS breast cancer foundation as executive director?

    VP: I am originally from Brazil and am a former breast cancer surgeon with 20 years of experience. I have also spent an accumulative 35 years living in the world of breast cancer. In those years I have gained a deep understanding of how important the breast is in the expression of femininity and how it is a part of our identity.

    GY: Can you tell us about the psychological changes seen in patients going through treatment?

    VP: Breast cancer is a chronic disease that affects the shape of the body. Partial or full mastectomies (surgical removal of one or both breasts, partially or completely) can have a massive effect on the psyche of the woman by removing that self-identifying connection to maternity and sexuality. Without self-confidence and a self-identifying connection some of the simplest tasks then become very daunting. One of our women shared that after her procedure she didn't have the courage to walk out to the mailbox, from a fear that people were judging her appearance. Here in America we have more lumpectomies [breast preservation surgery], but reconstruction is still mentally damaging because 40% of those procedures do not provide ideal results. It’s an ingrained phase of our identity that is very difficult to rebuild. It is something that extends far beyond the fear of death.

    GY: What is the importance of a supportive environment after treatment and what services can we find at the HERS foundation to uplift those patients?

    VP: To quote an old Nigerian proverb, and more recently Hillary Clinton, “It takes a village to raise a child." I believe it takes a village to take care of a breast cancer survivor. It takes family, a community, and so much more support not like that given in other countries. We are very fortunate to live in such a supportive community in the bay area. Support is everything.

    We use our yearly meetings as an opportunity to be a wealth of resource for our clients. I like to think of the bras, wigs and prosthetics solely as products. We are right with our women when they face the merciless truth that the mirror shows and during that moment, we are their soft place to fall. We let our women know they are not alone in their journey to regain their sense of dignity and beauty and use the prosthetics and bras to open that line of communication and offer valued support.

    We also take great care in selecting the individuals working with our clients. We have a small network of four certified breast care specialists that work with our women for fitting the prosthetic bras. Our specialists are required to complete a 500-hour training course before they ever take a test to be cleared to handle our cases. They need to be good listeners and have the heart to help. It is of the utmost importance to be empathetic to the delicate situations we are presented with when working with our women and their families. We hold a true passion and love for what we do. We cannot thank you enough for sharing our mission.

    GY: Thank you Vera for your time and we grant you and the HERS foundation our continued support in your noble cause to help so many that have been touched by breast cancer. 

    If you are interested in learning more about how you can help, there are several ways to get involved with HERS Breast Cancer Foundation. Please visit HERSBreastCancerFoundation.org/how-you-can-help for more information. Each contribution enables the HERS foundation to offer supplies and services to the underserved survivors in the bay area.

    1 HERSBreastCancerFoundation.org
    2 HERSBreastCancerFoundation.org