Beyond the Flames
Chances are you’ve seen, or been to, the annual Flames of Hope torch lighting and road races over the Columbus Day Weekend. This month Jim Hummel takes a look at the vast array of work the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource foundation is doing the rest of the year and introduces you to some of the lives the foundation has touched.
Click HERE for more information on the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation.
It is a powerful scene, and one that has played out ever year in front of the Rhode Island State House for the past decade. People touched by breast cancer making a very public statement. Many are survivors, others are family or friends there to show support.
Chances are you’ve heard about the annual Columbus Day weekend Flames of Hope: A Celebration of Life, or seen it firsthand as it plays out between the State House and Waterplace Park. The Flames of Hope event is the most public - but only one piece of an effort throughout the rest of the year by the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation - taking direct aim at awareness and support.
Gemma: ``Cancer is as much an emotional disease as it is a physical disease. The impact of it on the family is traumatic.’’
Maria Gemma, the foundation’s executive director, is the second-oldest of Gloria Gemma’s nine children that includes four daughters and five sons. Gloria Gemma was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in 2001 at the age of 69. She died a year later.
Gemma: ``Quite frankly I didn’t even know the terminology for cancer. Until we learned very quickly about staging and clinical trials and even just some of the everyday expressions that I live now I had no clue what they were.’’
Gloria’s Gemma’s death, and the experience the family went through, planted the seed for what would grow into a foundation that has touched tens of thousands of lives over the past 10 years. It began in a small strip mall in North Providence and is now located on the second floor of this office building near downtown Pawtucket with a full-time staff of seven people.
Gemma: ``We’re not a medical facility, but we are a facility that can connect the dots and provide those resources. And provide that listening ear and provide that support. The degree of need is so different. I could have a child come in here with his mom to a class and he could literally come in my office, can I talk to you? I can’t talk to my mother because I don’t want her to worry about me.’’
Not surprisingly, it’s hard to find a room where pink is not the dominant color. The huge conference room is a reminder of those who are fighting the battle and just down the hall brochures on a wide variety of topics related to cancer. Next door a library with even more literature.
Every year the foundation has widened its scope and now has a support group for men - and for young survivors.
Waterman: ``I was breast feeding the twins and I felt the lump and I knew it wasn’t right.’’
Jen Waterman was a 33-year-old mother of three young children when she was diagnosed in 2013. Her mother had died at the age of 49 of ovarian cancer.
Waterman: ``I have a really good support system. My husband has been unbelievable, my mother-in-law, equally unbelievable, she moved in with us once I was diagnosed once I started chemo.’’
And within weeks someone at the Cranston elementary school where Jen is a teacher told her about Gloria Gemma.
Waterman: ``It was nice to know that there were other women with young children like me going through this. I mean as much as I hated going through it, the fact that there were other women who have done it before and are going through it now, it helped.’’
And now Jen - who had a double mastectomy 10 months ago and is still undergoing follow up treatment - is making her own statement about fighting breast cancer, and supporting those who have it. She spoke about her journey at this year’s Flames of Hope..
Waterman: ``I wasn’t going to keep this a secret. It’s different from when my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer where people didn’t talk about it, she wore a wig. She never left the house without it. I was like, forget that, I’m going to let everyone know have breast cancer. I think two days after I was diagnosed we posted something on Facebook to let everyone know. And it was because I was trying to be proactive.If I could get one person to get a mammogram and possibly save their life, then this was all worth it. This woman, Gloria Gemma, is truly an amazing person. I mean look at everything, because of her, there’s all this. I’ve participated in the Young Survivors’ program, I was part of the Heroes’ fashion show. I was in the calendar this year, they put me on a billboard. ‘’
This year Jen joined dozens of others in the progression from the State House to the lighting of Water Fire.
Waterman: ``It’s just the most fascinating thing I’ve ever done. You’re carrying this stick of fire, but it’s amazing because there’s all these people cheering for you and clapping for you and this is something awful that we had to endure, but there are all these people that are there to support us, Cancer has touched almost everyone’s life and for all of those people to be there, it was to support all of us as we carried this torch down to the basin, it was unbelievable.’’
Then there’s the Hope Bus, which was on display at this year’s Flames of Hope. It goes out into the community, bringing services to the underserved and uninsured.
Moorehead: ``The foundation does amazing things for people. But the Hope Bus is like their mobile, intimate spot that can go anywhere in the state.’’
Barry Moorehead is a volunteer driver. His wife Maribeth was diagnosed in 2009.
Moorehead: ``Some events you go to 75 people come on the bus in three or four hours; or two people comes on the bus in three hours. But it always seems to be that one person comes on the bus that needs assistance or needs information, or wants to tell their story, and it all happens on the bus.’’
In addition, Barry is part of a men’s group - aimed at supporting spouses of those with breast cancer.
Moorehead: ``We just get together and have fun. We’ll play miniature golf, we’ll do stupid stuff. We’ll go to a billiards hall and play pool, we’ll go to Pawsox games, that type of stuff. It’s just kind of like fun support, you know? Sometimes people do have questions. And it’s an informal atmosphere and I think guys are more conformable than that.’’
The foundation also has dozens of corporate sponsors, which offer support in a variety of ways.
Take Panera Bread: for the month of October it sponsors a pink ribbon bagel campaign at more than a dozen stores in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
daCuhna: ``It’s so local and that’s why it came so naturally to our franchise.’’
Amanda daCuhna is the marketing coordinator for Howley Bread Group, the parent company of Panera. Employees wear pink in October, some do it year-round; and 25 cents from each pink ribbon bagel sold goes to the Gloria Gemma Foundation - giving customers a way to make a local statement about breast cancer.
daCuhna: ``Our customers and our managers and associates know that it’s going to locals, locals that are fighting the battle, or have family members that are.’’
This year Amanda attended Flames of Hope for the first time.
daCuhna: ``I brought someone along that had a personal connection so it was really important for them. It was powerful. It was emotional.’’
Maria Gemma says the foundation has recently begun work in the minority community and eventually would like to get its own building to house all of its services under one roof. Despite those planned changes, the core mission remains the same.
Gemma: ``We’re here for you, if you’ve been touched by breast cancer we’re here for you.’’
Moorehead: ``Gloria Gemma has been, with the knowledge that they have, and the comfort zone, they’re amazing. They do amazing things, and now we’re all a part of that, I guess.’’
Waterman: ``If you get diagnosed, the best place to be is Gloria Gemma, to call the foundation and to get some help.’’
Gemma: ``If you’ve been touched by cancer, not to be afraid. We’re not that cancer place. We’re the life place. We’re here to help you.’’
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.