Pretty in Pink: Support for Breast Cancer Champions

by Sep 29, 2012Nonprofits, South Brunswick

Story By Steph Medeiros
Photography By Emerald Design Photography
“We don’t call them survivors. We call them champions.”That’s Joy Wade, sitting at a desk in her home office, surrounded by a sea of bright-pink goodie bags, party favors and pamphlets.

“Survivor sounds too much like … you barely made it,” Wade says. “Champion means you fought, conquered and won.”

As program manager for the Southeast division of the Pretty in Pink Foundation, Wade’s job is to help these champions conquer a truly fearsome enemy — breast cancer.

Currently she’s preparing for a string of fund-raising events to help fund the cause. Fall is a busy time for Wade, but it’s good, she says. She needs the momentum of September and October to continue the fight into the next year. As new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to exceed 226,000 in 2012, more than 6,000 women are expected to be diagnosed in our state alone. According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, more than 1,000 of those women will die due to the disease.

The good news is that cancer deaths have been declining in the United States since the 1990s. The bad news is that the cost of treatment has risen dramatically. As medical science continues to advance, treatments have become more high-tech and have risen out of many patients’ price range. Add in the recent economic downturn and you have a tragically ironic dilemma. Now that the world is finally making a dent in the treatment of cancer, people can’t afford it.

“When you get a diagnosis of breast cancer, from start to finish, it could be anywhere from $400,000 to $800,000 [to treat],” explains Joy. “Most people don’t have that kind of money.”

According to a 2009 survey by the American Cancer Society, 20 percent of people with health insurance could not afford to pay for life-saving cancer treatments. One can imagine how grave the figures are for those without coverage. It seems that money, not medical science is the major obstacle for breast cancer patients.

That’s where the Pretty in Pink Foundation comes in.

Eight years ago, Dr. Lisa Tolnitch, a surgeon from Raleigh, began noticing a disturbing trend among her breast cancer patients. After giving them their diagnoses and discussing treatment plans, the patients would fail to show up. Once Dr. Tolnitch realized that the reason for their absence was their inability to pay, she made it a personal goal to help at least 10 women per year by offering free breast cancer treatment. Once the word got out, the demand for Dr. Tolnitch’s generosity was overwhelming. In May of 2004 Dr. Tolnitch filed for nonprofit status, and the Pretty in Pink Foundation was formed.

The foundation’s mission is simple: to ensure that quality, life-saving medical treatment is available to breast cancer patients residing in North Carolina, regardless of their ability to pay. Whether it’s for radiation treatment, chemotherapy, office co-payments or life-saving surgery, the Pretty in Pink Foundation (PIPF) will do whatever they can to cover the tab.

The way it works is fairly simple. When a breast cancer patient teams up with PIPF, they receive a card similar to an insurance card, which they present to their medical facility. The medical facility will then bill PIPF directly, and the foundation will send a check to cover the eligible services. The patient can focus on getting well, rather than stressing over astronomical medical bills.

“This is what makes us very unique,” says Wade. “We are a direct service organization, which is very different than a lot of the other ‘pink’ brand organizations. We partner with the medical facilities, who give us a certain amount of free or reduced services for our champions.”

Wade goes on to explain that after the free and reduced services have been used, the foundation will pay the Medicare rate that the medical facilities would charge Medicare patients.

“Even for chemotherapy, we will pay the Medicaid rate for the administration of that,” says Wade.

There are a few stipulations for receiving financial aid through PIPF. Covered costs only apply to life-saving medical treatment, and assistance is only provided from the time of application approval (i.e., not retroactively). Patients must be in some phase of active treatment for breast cancer and they must reside in North Carolina. There are some income guidelines, but according to Wade, each application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis. PIPF champions can be of any age, any sex (yes, men can get breast cancer, too) and they can be insured or uninsured.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve been getting more and more calls from people who are insured,” says Wade. “Because even if you’ve got insurance, the deductible that you’ve got to pay could be $5,000 and not a lot of people have that kind of money in their pocket.”

Although financial support is the backbone of the organization’s efforts, Wade and the rest of the PIPF team understand that living with breast cancer also requires emotional support. To meet this need, PIPF offers a sub-program called Beyond the Ribbon, which focuses on counseling and lifestyle support —services that may be less costly but no less critical to a patient’s well-being.

The benefits offered through Beyond the Ribbon are numerous, and thanks to dedicated volunteers and grants from the local business community, PIPF champions can have access to several products and services at little to no cost. A few examples include free wigs for chemotherapy patients, free or reduced-cost fittings for mastectomy bras and prosthesis, free or reduced-cost lymphedema garments, first response counseling after diagnosis, volunteer house cleaning and volunteer cooking.

“Beyond the Ribbon helps with the extra things that our champions may just need a hand with,” says Wade. “Just day to day life.”

Then there’s the sub-sub-program known as Beyond the Ribbon: Wishes, which Wade says is one of her favorite parts of the foundation. Wade explains that this program is similar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, but on a smaller scale. Beyond the Ribbon: Wishes allows PIPF champions a chance to get out and do something fun at no cost to them. As a recent example, Ann, a PIPF champion and volunteer, recently expressed an interest in learning how to do stand-up paddle boarding. According to Wade, Ann spent most of her summer going through chemotherapy, which caused her to miss out on a lot of fun summertime activities.

“That’s when the brain just started clicking,” says Wade. “I thought, ‘I’m going to make that happen.’” Wade made a call to Carolina Paddle Board Company in Wrightsville Beach and before they knew it, Ann’s wish came true and it didn’t cost her a cent.

Wade takes pleasure in improving the lives of others. However, her enthusiasm is paired with a sense of urgency. After all, the statistics of breast cancer are anything but pretty and every day more women are forced to face them.

“We want people to realize this isn’t a fun, frilly little disease,” says Wade. “This is a killer.”

To learn more about the Pretty in Pink Foundation, visit or call the Wilmington regional office at (910) 620-9871. Volunteers are always needed.

Breast Cancer Facts and Figures for 2012 (from the American Cancer Society and the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services)

• About 226,870 new cases of invasive breast cancer in women
• About 63,000 new cases of carcinoma in situ (the earliest form of breast cancer)
• About 39,510 deaths from breast cancer in women
• Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States, other than skin cancer.
• Breast cancer rates have been declining, probably due to increased awareness, earlier detection and better treatment.
• Right now, there are more than 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States
• Each year, more than 6,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in North Carolina. Of those diagnosed, more than 1,000 women will die due to the disease.

Pretty in Pink Foundation: Where the Money Goes

• In 2011 the Pretty in Pink Foundation, along with partnered medical facilities, helped 457 women across the state of North Carolina and helped provide $24 million in free services for life-saving breast cancer treatment.
• 90% of money raised goes to patient care
• 10% of money raised goes to overhead
• 100% of money raised stays in North Carolina

Tips for Early Breast Cancer Detection

• Women older than 20 should have a clinical breast exam (CBE) every 1 to 3 years.
• Women older than 40 should also have a mammogram each year.
• Women of all ages should be aware of how their breasts normally look and feel and report any unusual changes to their doctor immediately.
• Men are generally at low risk for developing breast cancer; however, they should notify their physician of any changes in their breasts.

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