Inspiring Women on a Mission: Sharon Henifin & Becky Olson

women on a mission Oct 04, 2018

Cancer will touch the lives of all women in America at some point. About 12 percent of the population will be diagnosed with the disease and the rest will know at least one woman – and probably more than one – who is battling cancer.

Breast Friends tries to help all of those women – the ones in the fight and their friends, family and acquaintances who might not know how best to support their loved ones with cancer.

As the group says on its website:

“One in eight women will be diagnosed, and the other seven will know her. Our goal is to reach the seven in order to help the one.”

Breast Friends was founded by a couple of best friends, Sheron Henifin and Becky Olson. They became acquainted in 1991 as co-workers at a corporation in Portland, Oregon. In 1993, Sharon’s life changed forever; she was the first in her group of female friends to go through breast cancer.

“People would say things like ‘call me if you need something,’” she recalls, “and they really meant it, but they really didn’t know how to be a good support system.”

Strangely, a woman with a cancer diagnosis often has an additional burden besides the disease to contend with: How do you let your friends and loved ones help you when they don’t know what is needed to make the journey easier?

When Becky Olson received her first cancer diagnosis three years later, it was Sharon – who had already gone through the experience – who provided some of the greatest comfort and support. Becky didn’t have to explain how she was feeling or what she needed, because Sharon had been there.

Ultimately the two decided they were in a unique position to help others and decided to start a nonprofit to benefit breast cancer patients by teaching their friends and family how to offer appropriate help. Breast Friends received its 501-c-3 designation in 2001.

To understand the practical and compassionate approach of Breast Friends, one only has to look at their “First I Cry” packet, distributed through hospitals, clinics and other places where a cancer diagnosis is likely to be presented.

The packet includes a “Welcome to the Sisterhood” message, a beautiful handkerchief, a list of contacts for area support groups, and a self-referral card for Breast Friend’s Volunteer Match program. But the most important piece inside the packet is a sealed envelope with instructions to “Give this to someone who cares about you.”

Inside the envelope is a special message to that support person and a list of concrete ideas that allows him or her to be there physically, emotionally and socially for the woman going through cancer. Ideas include calling her, leaving an unexpected small gift on her doorstep, cooking a meal for her family on the days she has chemotherapy, arranging a “hat” party, and raising money to pay for a day of housecleaning are among the dozens of ideas offered.

In the years since Breast Friends started, it has grown in the types of services and initiatives it offers to women. They now include Girls Night Out events, free counseling services, “walk and talk” support groups, and Hope Closet, which is stocked with post-mastectomy accessories, such as mastectomy bras, breast prosthesis, scarves, wigs and compression sleeves, available free of charge to women with limited or no insurance coverage.

During the group’s “Bald is Beautiful” events, women undergoing treatment are pampered by makeup artists and professionally photographed. The experience can be transformative – not because the women are not already beautiful (the makeup only enhances what is already there), but because the experience helps them think of themselves as women first, instead of patients.

Breast Friends also offers a three-day, two-night retreat for women with cancer to discuss topics ranging from concerns about treatment side effects to recurrence of the disease after treatment. It uses life coaching principals and techniques to help women balance their lives and set priorities before, during and after treatment.

One of the focuses of Breast Friends is to ensure that no woman, regardless of her circumstances, is left to face cancer alone. In 2006, Becky and Sharon started a program to reach women whose very situation meant they were separated from vital support systems – those who have been incarcerated.

They began providing services to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, meeting with women who had been diagnosed and providing educational programs for the general population to inform inmates and dispel myths about cancer. They also lobbied to make sure that a mobile mammography van came to the facility on a monthly basis.

Since starting in 2000, Sharon and Becky have also turned to new methods of delivering their message. Both women have authored books – Sharon’s Thriving Beyond Cancer deals with the difficult time for cancer patients after their formal treatment is over, while Becky’s The Hat that Saved My Life is focused on how friends and family can help support a woman battling the disease.

In 2016, the two women brought their message to the airwaves and now Sharon and Becky co-host a weekly radio show on the Voice America channel that’s also available on iTunes on online here. Recent topics ranged from common issues in treatment (“Surgical Drains – What a Pain!!”) to how a professional musician dealt with her diagnosis while touring (“What Happens When Rock Stars Get Cancer”). The show has thousands of downloads each month.

“One reason we started this radio show is that there are a lot of people in the world who live in rural communities, that may not have access to all the information that they need,” said Becky. “We try to bring on a variety of guests who will introduce new topics, new ideas and bring inspiration and hope to people listening to our show.”  

You can learn much more about Breast Friends and how it is making sure that no woman has to face cancer alone by going to their website.

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