Building Breast Cancer Awareness in Arizona: Holly’s Story

April 2, 2019

Building Breast Cancer Awareness in Arizona: Holly’s Story

By: Lori McNeill

Holly Rose’s Story

Holly Rose had just turned 39 when she read a Facebook post from a longtime friend reminding readers to give themselves a breast self-exam. She hadn’t been planning to schedule her first mammogram until she was 40, and she was not in the habit of performing breast self-exams to check for signs of breast cancer. Yet, after seeing that post, she did perform a self-exam ... and found a large lump.

It was breast cancer.

“I’d caught it early enough to save my breast, and more importantly, my life,” said Holly. 

She had two surgeries, four chemotherapy treatments, and six months of radiation. The chemo was particularly rough on her. On April 13, 2009, she lost her hair.

“People think losing your hair is a matter of vanity, but your hair is part of your identity,” said Holly. “My youngest daughter wouldn’t hug me without a wig.”

During that challenging time, Holly was fortunate to have a lot of community support. For six weeks she had multi-course meals delivered to her home, sometimes even anonymously. Friends and neighbors helped with cooking, laundry, and housecleaning.

“I’d been the recipient of so many acts of kindness, I thought, I have to do something to give back to my community,” said Holly. So by the end of her cancer treatment, she looked for ways to get the word out to others about breast cancer prevention.

The Birth of Don’t be a Chump! Check for a Lump!

I wanted a call to action for self-exams.

Holly had spoken to many intelligent women of varying professions and at various points in their lives, and they didn’t seem to be aware of breast cancer prevention measures. She wondered how this was possible.

“Does it run in the family?” they’d ask. But Holly knew that less than 10% of breast cancers are hereditary.

As a breast cancer survivor, in addition to wanting to give back, Holly was highly motivated to learn. 

“I absolutely love Arizona Oncology. My doctor was Dr. (Sharon) Ondreyco, and I had a wonderful experience with Arizona Oncology.” Still, a big part of her motivation for further self-education was, “I never wanted to go through chemotherapy again.”

The more she learned about breast cancer, preventative care she could take to try to avoid ever having to experience chemotherapy again, and the level of unawareness about preventative measures, the more she wanted to share what she learned. Holly wanted to build awareness in her Arizona community and to educate in a memorable way. She started with a slogan: Don’t be a Chump! Check for a Lump!

She chose the casual, playful slogan to get women’s attention (while not embarrassing her young daughters by mentioning “boobies”), and it became the name of a growing nonprofit.

That nonprofit has grown to provide a comprehensive breast health education program, offering women facts about breast cancer, information on controllable and uncontrollable risk factors, and guidelines for screenings.

Don't be a Chump! Check for a Lump! educational outreach includes a free breast health magazine with a distribution of 60,000 that Holly’s able to provide around Phoenix in print and online with the help of sponsors like Arizona Oncology and the Arizona Center for Reconstructive Breast Surgery. The magazine can be found at Fry’s, Safeway, and CVS locations, to name a few.

Holly also started delivering free, entertaining wellness workshops ranging in length from 15 minutes to one hour, 12 to 15 times a year. They’re popular with women’s leagues in Phoenix, but anyone can contact outreach@checkforalump.org to arrange a presentation from Holly, including locations in Tucson.

The Motivation to Keep Going and Keep Growing

I felt like this was my path, my purpose

I felt like this was my path, my purpose, said Holly, about presenting to and educating her community. That doesn’t mean it was always easy for her.

“Nine years ago. I was very shy, shaking when speaking,” she admitted. She even recalled a time that she shook so much during a presentation the glass of water she was holding started spilling. Yet, whenever she felt hesitant, she said “God would give me a sign: ‘Holly, this is your purpose.’” One of those signs, to her, was getting a call from Facebook headquarters to present her story to Mark Zuckerberg and staff as part of MTV’s Diary of Facebook. Another was a call from Oprah’s staff. So even though she admits at times she was “still terrified,” Holly persisted in building awareness, educating others, and garnering local and national attention.

Wigging Out

Two years into providing awareness and education programs, Holly also decided to start offering direct assistance to cancer patients through a wig program. She remembered her own experience with losing her hair and feeling more like herself with a wig. She also heard the story of a 29-year-old cancer patient whose son wanted her to wait far from the school when she picked him up because he was embarrassed by her bald head. Holly wanted cancer patients to be able to walk into a wig shop and come out with a new, custom wig that would serve them for the six or so months they might need it without costing them a fortune. Her free Wig Out wig program pays for wigs from any wig shop up to $250 for first-time breast cancer patients in Arizona undergoing chemotherapy.

“We started with four, then 10, then 50 … now we provide about 250 wigs every year,” said Holly.

Don’t be a Chump! Check for a Lump! holds a fundraising gala each year where wigs are highly encouraged, and it’s become, as Holly says, “a giant costume party.” The 9th annual Wig Out Gala is coming up on April 13, 2019, which will be the 10th anniversary of the day Holly lost her hair during chemo. The theme of this year’s event is “Hollywood Walk of Fame”, with attendees encouraged to dress for the red carpet or as their favorite celebrity on the walk of fame. A nod to the silver screen in honor of breast cancer screenings.

Focusing in on Cancer Prevention

In addition to providing financial assistance for wigs, The Don’t be a Chump! Check for a Lump! team helps with the cost of mammograms, offering free and low-cost mammogram events in Arizona.

When a need opened up in the community after another cancer organization left town, Holly and her support network worked to expand free and low-cost screening and diagnostic assistance to help even more Arizonans through early detection of breast cancer.

Community Support Goes Both Ways

Holly knows they couldn’t do all they do to make a difference in Arizonans’ fight against breast cancer—providing education, prevention, and direct assistance—without help. “This whole community said ‘yes, we’ll support you’,” said Holly. Support comes through donations, sponsorships, event hosting, and volunteers, and has helped the nonprofit grow, increase Wig Out Gala funds raised and wigs provided, and gain national attention.

  Holly, in turn, has done what she can to make providing serious and potentially life-saving information fun for everyone involved. She and her team have hosted flash mobs, funky fundraising galas, stylish fashion shows, and local races. One of those races, the third annual Don't be a Chump! Check for a Lump! Pink Out 5K takes place on October 5, 2019, with all funds staying in Arizona.

The fun elements get attention, Holly says, while the information makes women ask, “How did I not know this?”

Tickets and registration for all fundraising events, along with information and resources, can be found on the organization’s website: www.checkforalump.org.

It’s been over nine years since Holly’s cancer diagnosis. In eight years, she and her supporters have turned a call-to-action about breast self-exams into engaging educational outreach programs, an informative, on- and offline breast health magazine, more than 100 free mammograms, plus assistance providing more than 1,200 custom wigs to Arizona cancer patients.

A Facebook post led to a breast self-exam that saved a life. Holly’s story just goes to show the impact a cancer survivor, her creativity and compassion, and her community support network can create with a dedicated campaign of awareness and assistance. They’ve given that original message a megaphone and are making a difference in Arizonan’s lives.

 

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of blogs on cancer survivors contributing to their communities. Be sure to also read Sherri’s Story.

Categories: Survivor Stories