Breast cancer screening is an important part of a woman’s health, a message experts are pushing in October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Learn about programs in the Syracuse area that provide the resources to support you or a loved one.
By Sarah Merke
Janet Bacon, on a whim, decided to go for a mammogram after a community health worker from She Matters asked about her yearly examination.
The decision changed her life. It revealed that Bacon, then 45, had breast cancer.
“I felt like everything was coming down on me, I wasn’t going to make it,” she said. “When they first told me about the cancer, I couldn’t speak; it seemed like my voice just left me. I couldn’t tell them what I was thinking, what I was feeling. The first thing I said when I could speak was, ‘can you get it out?’”
The answer, doctors said, was yes, and the medical staff at the Upstate Cancer Center removed the cancer and saved her life.
In some ways, though, Bacon saved her own life by getting tested so that the doctors had the chance to act. For that, she thanks She Matters, a community outreach program under the Upstate Cancer Center that educates and supports women. Bacon soon joined She Matters, becoming one of its first community health workers.
She Matters, the Mobile Mammography Program, and the Saint Agatha Foundation provide a constellation of support and care for women in Syracuse. Each year in the United States, an estimated 240,000 cases of Breast Cancer are diagnosed in women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She Matters, the Mobile Mammography Program, and Saint Agatha Foundation each have missions to support the well-being of women and to relieve the emotional, mental and physical toll Breast Cancer brings to women regardless of their socio- economic status.
SHE MATTERS: A DECADE OF HELPING WOMEN
She Matters first started by serving women in Pioneer Homes 10 years ago and has since branched out to 10 different housing units in Syracuse. Rachel Osiecki, project and program coordinator for She Matters, said that in the last decade, She Matters has interacted with over 10,000 women, and has screened more than 1,100 women for breast cancer. Those screenings have detected seven cancers so far, and a third of the women tested now get tested regularly.
“It feels amazing to be celebrating 10 years, I feel like it’s a huge moment for our program, that we were able to sustain it,” said Rachel Osiecki, project and program coordinator for She Matters. “The program is grant funded, so the fact that all of our funders believe in us and in the work that we’re doing is crucial. We’ve also been able to sustain a trusting relationship within the community, I always look forward to seeing the women that have been in the program for years and getting to meet our new members.”
She Matters serves women 40 years and above who are in need of assistance. The program strives to reduce breast cancer disparities, such as lack of transportation. She Matters is using a grant from UnitedHealthcare to send Uber’s to women who are struggling to attend appointments. Another disparity that is affecting women in the community is the stigma and fear surrounding breast cancer screenings.
“Some of them are very scared, you know, especially when they haven’t had a mammogram,” Bacon said “That’s where we step in, especially me because I’ve gone through that, you know, and I understand where they’re coming from. I give them comfort, and I let them know they can depend on She Matters.”
Getting screened early for breast cancer is crucial. Mammograms will find cancer when a lump is too small to feel, and often when it’s at its most curable stage. Patients diagnosed with Breast Cancer Stage 1 have a 98% to 100% rate of surviving at least five years beyond the diagnosis, according to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. To encourage testing, She Matters is informing women to get tested regardless of genetics as only about 5% to 10% of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary, according to the American Cancer Society. This was the case for Bacon, who had no family history of breast cancer.
To help relieve the stress of scheduling a mammogram, She Matters provides a doctor to women who do not have a primary physician. Typically to get a mammogram, patients need a doctor to write a script for their screening. But She Matters’ Dr. Lisa Lai writes scripts for patients if they don’t have a primary care physician, helping secure their examination.
MAMMOGRAPHY GOES MOBILE
She Matters sometimes collaborates with Upstate Medical University Hospital’s Mobile Mammography Program to make mammography accessible to others in the Syracuse area. Upstate University Mobile Mammography van offers the same high-quality screening as Upstate’s breast imaging locations. The van serves several counties in Central New York, including Onondaga, Oswego, St. Lawrence Herkimer, Lewis, Oneida, Madison, Cayuga County, and more.
Wendy Hunt, the program manager for the Mobile Mammography Program, encourages the same sentiments of She Matters when it comes to the importance of Breast Cancer screening.
“Early detection for breast cancer is so important, the sooner you find it, the better your options for treatment are,” she said. “My thoughts have always been that it’s once a year, it lasts a few minutes. I know it’s not fun but it’s a couple minutes out of your year that can save you a lot of time down the road and a lot of heartache.”
The mobile van can provide up to 20 screenings per day and is available four days a week in community centers such as public libraries, the YMCA, and schools – locations and dates can be found here. Appointments are not needed but they are recommended to ensure your screening time, appointments can be made by phone, 315-464-2588 or by scheduling an appointment online. Both organizations will also be on hand tonight (Oct. 27) at this year’s Pink in the Rink, an annual game hosted by the Syracuse Crunch to raise awareness of breast cancer.
LEAVING A LEGACY AT SAINT AGATHA
Twenty-six years ago, Laurie Mezzalingua, then 29 was called in for a biopsy. Her mother, Kathleen Mezzalingua, thought nothing of it – surely Laurie was too young. But then the doctor walked over very slowly and told Kathleen that her daughter had breast cancer. The words felt like a knife to her heart. Kathleen didn’t have the answers but she knew she would provide her daughter with love and the reassurance that she and the rest of their family would be there every step of the way for Laurie.
For the next 12 years, Laurie would battle with Breast Cancer but her natural upbeat personality, support from family and her faith would keep her spirits high. She was surrounded by fellow Breast Cancer patients who would become good friends. But she soon realized that many did not have the same support from families like she did. She saw firsthand the ways in which breast cancer had affected other aspects of their life: childcare, job security, insurance bills, mortgage payments and more.
Laurie’s heart broke for her friends. She decided she wanted to help and created the Saint Agatha Foundation in 2004 to provide support and comfort to Breast Cancer patients and families.
“It was very small, very minimal, but she was so committed to the cause,” said Kathleen. “She didn’t have a lot of money, she just wanted to help people. Her intention was Breast Cancer, but when she heard of another story of somebody who needed money, she would help them.”
Laurie would continue to support in any way that she could, it became her mission. She continued to grow the foundation until her passing in 2009 at age 41. She asked her mother to take over the foundation, and Kathleen is now the president of Saint Agatha Foundation. Kathleen and her team have been committed to growing the foundation every year and ensuring Laurie’s goal of helping women. Every decision is made with Laurie in mind, including funding organizations like Camp Kesem, Symphoria, and The KEYS Program. Laurie loved music so it felt natural to pair up with The KEYS Program and offer free music sessions to breast cancer patients, including music therapy, her mom said.
Saint Agatha Foundation has helped 10,000 women and has given more than $10 million to help women with treatments, surgery and medications, the organization reports. The foundation serves Onondaga, Cortland, Cayuga, Madison, Oneida, Oswego, and Jefferson Counties in Central New York. The foundation provides gas and food cards, child care, mortgage and utility payments, and legal aid. They have partnered with numerous hospitals and healthcare providers- Upstate Medical University, Oneida Healthcare, Crouse Hospital. More can be found on Saint Agatha Foundation’s website, including how they help Breast Cancer patients receive financial assistance.
Next year will mark 15 years since Laurie’s passing and the foundation plans to bring back their Gala, which they did five years ago- 2019- to celebrate Laurie’s life and legacy. When reflecting on Laurie and the growth of Saint Agatha Foundation, Kathleen and her family are filled with pride.
“It’s a legacy that I’m just so grateful for, I can’t take a bit of a credit,” she said. “I’m just doing my part in running the foundation like she asked but it was her dream and her idea. I personally thank her every day, I love what I do because I’m furthering this mission and the promise I made to her. I’m going to keep doing my part until I can’t do it anymore, then the next generation will pick it up. We plan to continue the foundation for many generations.”