How one grassroots organization is making all the difference for those fighting the disease
By Charlie Reed
The color pink takes on special meaning every October during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Pink ribbons and the color itself have come to represent support for people fighting the disease, now the most common form of cancer among women in the U.S. It’s the unofficial color of most campaigns that raise awareness about the disease and highlight the stories of survivors and fighters.
Florida Hospital and Celebration Health are bringing together breast cancer patients, survivors and their supporters for the “Pink on Parade” 5K rally on Oct. 22. Proceeds from the event will go toward helping local residents with the disease in a rally that welcomes those who want to run, walk, volunteer or donate.
Millions have run in the Susan G. Komen foundation’s annual Race for the Cure, a popular event held every October in cities and towns across America. The Washington D.C.-based nonprofit focuses on a range of services education, research and advocacy programs focused on breast cancer.
But here in Central Florida, one grassroots organization stays focused on the home front and has created a flourishing volunteer network.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Compassionate Hands and Hearts Breast Cancer Outreach was founded by longtime WFTV anchor Vanessa Echols, a breast cancer survivor and advocate who lends her local celebrity to the cause. CLICK HERE Read about the history of Compassionate Hands and Hearts
But love is what drives the organization. At the group’s monthly events, patients receive monetary gifts and other donated items at receptions aimed at fostering camaraderie and = among the clients, their supporters and the volunteers.
The group also provides clients with everyday help — from running errands to preparing food to a simple call offering help.
Vanessa, who was diagnosed in 2004, got the idea for Compassionate Hands and Hearts after she and friend heard about a woman who walked 1.5 miles from her house to take a bus to chemotherapy.
“We picked her up, took her to chemo, then arranged transportation for her after that. That one simple act totally changed her treatment,” Vanessa said. “I was surprised because I thought there would be something or someone to help her with the challenges of daily living while going through all that. But there wasn’t.”
As she and friends began helping more people who, in turn, wanted to help more people, Compassionate Hands and Hearts naturally came together. It’s a registered 501c-3 nonprofit that’s powered solely by volunteers.
“Everything about our organization is organic,” Vanessa said. “What’s unique is that every penny we get goes to the patients. Nothing goes to administrative costs. We can show you the person who gets what you give at our monthly outreach events.”
At one such recent gathering in Osceola County, it was easy to see just how much the group’s support means to those battling breast cancer. The events feel more like close friends getting together than a formal function.
And Savanna Rousch, a 20-year old from St. Cloud, is one of the gang. Last year, when she lost her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes because of chemotherapy, the crew from Compassionate Hands and Hearts took her for a makeover in Orlando.
“I felt a little awkward at first, but then I opened up,” said Savannah, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 18, less than a year after graduating from St. Cloud High School.
The make-up techniques went a long way in boosting her confidence after she lost her hair and underwent a double mastectomy. But interacting with the group taught the young women an even more important lesson: “That I’m not alone and that God is with me.”
While battling breast cancer, she developed congestive heart failure because of the chemotherapy. Savannah also has developed other complications and conditions that make her recovery tough.
While most kids her age are going to school and working, Savannah is simply trying to get well. She still gets treatments to drain lymphatic fluids and repair hardened tissue caused by the breast cancer. She now also goes to physically therapy to strengthen her heart. Her three closest friends — Katie, Jackie and Josie — help her get through tough days and there for the good ones, too.
Same goes for her mom Pam Roush, a retired Kissimmee Police Department captain, whose parents both died of cancer not long before Savannah was diagnosed.
“It’s been tough,” Pam said, but getting to see how resilient her daughter is makes her proud.
“She’s so strong. She’s my pride and joy.”
The mother-daughter duo also wants the general public to know that self-breast exams save lives. It helped Savannah save her own. She learned about self-breast exams during in high school and picked up literature on the topic at a concert as a teen.
“That’s kind of how I noticed there was a lump and why I thought I should go to the doctor,” she said. Pam and Savannah’s general physician assumed there was likely nothing wrong because she was so young but fortunately checked it out anyway. The vast majority of breast cancer afflict women over the age of 50.
“She had Stage 3 breast cancer. If she hadn’t done that, hadn’t known how to do the self-exam we would have never known,” Pam said.
Savannah has had to delay some of her young adulthood to fight cancer but has also developed a deeper understanding of herself. She isn’t quite sure what she wants to do when she gets better, but “I know you can’t take life for granted. You just don’t give up.”
Just when Sandra Mantellini thought about giving up she found grace. During the past year, the 32-year-old has been fighting breast cancer, undergone a double mastectomy and broken up with her boyfriend. She has also been trying to establish a new life here in Central Florida after fleeing political unrest in her native Venezuela.
Life is more challenging than she ever could have imagined, but it’s playing out in divine time, she said.
“I was mad at first,” Sandra said. “But then I found my church, and I started to feel a strong sense of gratitude and appreciation for what I was going through. I heard God’s voice and knew this was happening as a way for me to understand life.”
Compassionate Hands and Hearts also helped Sandra shed her wig and become more comfortable with the scars left on her chest from the mastectomy.
Shortly after the August outreach event, Sandra and a friend were interviewed by a local news crew on the day of the solar eclipse. It was first day she didn’t don a wig, an anecdote she shared on live TV.
“I told them I was coming out to the world without my wig. I felt so free,” she said.
She celebrated her birthday in August with her brother, who also recently came her from Venezuela, and received well wishes from friends around the world.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it to my birthday. But I’m here and I’m feeling better and I’m here to share my story,” said Sandra, who recently shared photos of her bald head on social media, a big step, she said.
She was overwhelmed with the love shown by the gang from Compassionate Hands and Hearts after her surgery in April.
“They had a whole itinerary they gave me and did everything for me. I can’t thank them enough. They’re like angels,” Sandra said.
As her life continues to change, Sandra said she feels like the luckiest person in the world fighting cancer.
“It’s absolutely made me stronger. I would take nothing back.”
While breast cancer is significantly more prevalent among women, men can also be afflicted with the disease.
Just ask Jeff Weinstein, a breast cancer survivor and member of the board of directors for Compassionate Hands and Hearts. He was diagnosed in 2007, at age 43, after reluctantly checking out a lump at the advice of his wife Stephanie.
After his doctor told him he had breast cancer, Jeff — who was living in Kissimmee with his family at the time — essentially zoned out, he said. Although he heard the doctor, all he could think of was how inconvenient the situation was.
“I told the doc that my wife doesn’t cook and that I had 16 people coming for Christmas dinner in a few weeks,” said Jeff, father to six children — two foster, two adopted and two biological.
But the doctor said treating Stage 2 breast cancer couldn’t wait until after the holidays.
“My wife loves being right, but not in this case,” he said.
Jeff underwent a radical mastectomy and endured five months of chemotherapy and avoided radiation treatment. He beat the cancer and began running in the Race for the Cure, where he met Vanessa Echols who, by then, had started Compassionate Hands and Hearts.
As reporters do, she talked Jeff into doing an interview on WFTV about men with breast cancer and the two became fast friends.
Jeff isn’t always the only male at the outreach event, though it’s an overwhelmingly female group. But he doesn’t mind and has come to rely on the group’s support and chance to help others.
“Unfortunately, there’s still a huge population of men that don’t want to be part of anything to do with breast cancer even when their significant other has it,” he said.
Earlier this year, Jeff was told he had Stage 2 bladder cancer, a diagnosis that came almost 10 years to the day after his first.
“The treatment is nothing like it was with the breast cancer, much less intrusive. I’m going to be fine,” he said.
And should he forget to update his pals at Compassionate Hands and Hearts, they’ll check on him without a doubt. After a recent surgery, the texts and phone calls flooded Jeff’s phone.
“If you don’t tell us how it’s going we’re going to call Stephanie,” was the crux of most of the messages.
“I didn’t realize how much they pay attention,” said Jeff, who had only casually mentioned his surgery in passing at an outreach event.
“That’s how it works, we all look out for each other.”