"Imagine life without breast cancer” is the motto of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of those battling breast cancer and working to raise funds for research to cure the disease. Thanks to the Coastal Georgia affiliate of Susan G. Komen, Hinesville resident and certified nursing assistant Theresa Gilchrist can imagine life without breast cancer.
On March 1, the local survivor, who has been cancer-free since 2011, was named as the organization’s March Survivor of the Month. Each month, the organization selects one survivor and shares her story with the community to help spread awareness of the disease. Gilchrist was featured in a story on WTOC and also will be the focus of public-service announcements on the station throughout the month.
Since she had a sister who died young from breast cancer, Gilchrist feared the worst when she first started experiencing pain and swelling in her right breast in 2010. Without medical insurance, she knew she could not afford doctors’ visits or tests. However, she sought out assistance through the BRAVE Project — Be Readily Available and Very Empathic, a division of the Liberty County Health Department. The agency receives funding in the form of yearly grants from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation to provide breast-cancer screenings, mammograms and biopsies to the underinsured, said Annie Washington, county nurse manager and clinician with BRAVE.
It was through a mammogram and a biopsy that Gilchrist’s fears were confirmed — she had stage IV breast cancer. However, Washington said that Gilchrist’s fear soon turned to conviction to beat the disease. BRAVE assisted in getting Gilchrist coverage under Women’s Health Medicaid, which allowed her to receive lifesaving surgery to remove the cancer.
Gilchrist is included in some troubling statistics that emerged from a 2011 community assessment of the Coastal Georgia area conducted by Susan G. Komen, said Beth Desloges, executive director of the SGK Coastal Georgia affiliate. The study, which included both Liberty and Long counties, found that 26.6 percent of those ages 18-64 in Liberty County do not have health insurance.
“This number is slightly higher than the rest of the Coastal Georgia area and is alarming,” Desloges said.
Even more startling, she said, is that Liberty has the second-highest number of women — 41 percent — who did not seek a mammogram in the past 12 months. Liberty is second only to Long County, where 42.2 percent did not seek a mammogram.
“Education and awareness are important in Liberty and Long counties right now because late-stage diagnosis of breast cancer can significantly reduce the chances for survival,” Desloges said.
She commended BRAVE as a grassroots program doing great work within the community for women like Gilchrist.
“It is important for us to partner with agencies like BRAVE and for Liberty residents to know that these programs exist due to their generous support to Susan G. Komen for the Cure,” she said.
Washington said they have seen approximately 75 women so far this grant year through the BRAVE Project, and plans are in the works for a few upcoming events that will bring in more women to be screened for the first time and for follow-up screenings. The project also provides resources and referrals to other programs in the community.
Sharing Gilchrist’s story with the community will help to let others know that help is out there, they just need to ask for it, Desloges said. Survivors of the month become advocates for the organization, representing them at several events throughout the year.
Survivors are nominated for the honor with the requirement that they must spread a message or help further a mission. Washington nominated Gilchrist for survivor of the month. From the moment of diagnosis, Washington said she admired Gilchrist’s positive attitude and determination to not wallow in self-pity. She felt that Gilchrist has a positive message to share with others and knew she could take her message even further with a survivor of the month selection, which is why she nominated her.
“After her surgery, I visited her in the hospital. I walked into her room and she is sitting in bed wearing a T-shirt that read ‘I didn’t let cancer steal second base.’ That is just the type of person that she is; she wasn’t going to let the cancer take her sense of humor,” Washington said.
Gilchrist currently works at a nursing home in Midway, where she loves her job.
“Everyone’s not lucky enough to survive. I was a lucky one to survive, and I am going on two years now,” Gilchrist said. She gives credit to Washington and the BRAVE Project for helping to save her life. Although she has been cancer-free for a couple years, her journey is not over; she still is undergoing post-care reconstructive surgery in phases.
The Savannah Race for the Cure, which is the area’s largest fundraiser and provides funding for programs such as the BRAVE project, Desloges said, is Saturday, April 13, at Telfair Square in Savannah. Those interested in participating can register online at www.komencoastalgeorgia.org or call 912-232-2535 for more information.