National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is very near to our hearts at Vera Bradley. The loss of our dear friend and colleague Mary Sloan in 1993 was the inspiration for the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer. Since its founding, we have donated more than $32.5 million. Every October, we partner with our Foundation to not just raise awareness, but also to raise funds for critical, life-changing research.
This year, we approached this meaningful month a bit differently. We wanted to celebrate the many women who have bravely battled this terrible disease. These are our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, friends, coworkers and neighbors. These women come from all walks of life but have a shared mutual interest: Fighting breast cancer and spreading hope.
Earlier this year, we brought 16 survivors to our home office to share their experiences. We laughed and cried together while learning their unique stories and hearing their uplifting perspectives on the future. These women are true superheroes, and we’re so proud to feature them throughout the month of October.
be the hope
We are honored to introduce you to the 16 survivors featured in our National Breast Cancer Awareness Month campaign.
A mom of three, Lisa was in between jobs, without insurance and in the process of working out the final details of an exciting new job offer when she got the call that her doctor wanted her to come in and talk about the lump she had found under her arm. Lisa says she was lucky enough to get connected to community resources for treatment, but that’s not everyone’s experience. “There was a reason why I survived. I really feel like I have a responsibility to not just share my story, but to help women know about screenings and where resources are.” Today, Lisa is the executive director of the R.E.D. (Reaching to End Disparities) Alliance, Inc., an organization focused on reducing late-stage diagnosis and death rates for African American women.
Tammy was a volunteer for the Foundation before she got her own diagnosis in 2005. A former police officer and hairstylist, she was on a trip to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota when she got the call. She says knowing that there was something inside her, something that was devouring her healthy cells, was the hardest part to overcome. Today she is focused on doing her part to advance treatments. “Research is so important. Someone before me had to take something experimental in order for them to figure out what treatment to give me. Today, if someone had the same tumor as I did, they don’t do chemo, they do radiation.”
Cindy’s story is one marked by unwavering determination, right from diagnosis. “I had a son who was 4 years old, and I remember telling my husband, I just want to live long enough so he doesn’t call anybody else mom.” Fight she did, and when the cancer came back in 2013, Cindy again found strength in her family. “I felt so fortunate to have so much to fight for. Even in my darkest days, I’d kick myself and say, ‘You’ve got this girl, you’ve got this.’” Today, Cindy is quick to use her story to support research, which she says is so important to all of us. “I just love being able to say that Vera Bradley has the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer that donates millions of dollars to breast cancer research. I feel really proud to be able to say that they do that.”
Gayle is a retired school teacher but was still teaching when she was diagnosed. She says she found so much strength and support from her community. On our photo shoot day, she brought with her a quilt her students and staff had made marked with words of encouragement (she’s since passed it on to 20-some other women who have used it during treatment.) Helping to raise awareness for breast cancer research is Gayle’s favorite part of her story. “We’re finding better ways to treat it all the time. There’s no question in 15 years, I have seen progress, but a cure has got to be out there somewhere.”
Prior to being diagnosed with breast cancer, Nadia says she was all about the hustle and bustle. “I was always on the go, and I never really gave it a thought. I didn’t take moments.” Twenty-four months of treatment brought lots of moments to sit down, to think and to pray. “I remember before surgery closing my eyes and saying, ‘Lord if I survive, I’ll never stop talking about this.’” Nadia kept her promise. Today she is the executive director of Pink-4-Ever, Inc. She stresses the importance of people from different demographics participating in clinical trials to make sure therapies are developed for everyone, sharing, “I am a living testimony of what research can do.”
From our hometown, Linda is a friend to so many of us. Helping to build a sense of hope and community around survivors is so important to her; as she told us, “Somebody else’s research and their stories could help someone else that’s probably going through what another person is going through.” Proud to be a part of this campaign, she’s even more proud of the work the Foundation does year-round. “Breast Cancer is more than October. There are women battling every day, and we support them.”
Sarah, now a mom of two, was diagnosed just a year after having her first child. She found a lump on her own and after local doctors initially brushed her off, she called Indiana University in Indianapolis for a second opinion. “I don’t think that happens very often, where somebody advocates for themselves and is 27 and calls down.” She was seen on a Tuesday, had surgery that Friday and started chemo a week later. It saved her life. As a result, Sarah encourages women to be advocates for their own health and to recognize the risks that are out there. “I was in my 20s. I had no family history. I have clean genetic testing. Family history has to start with someone. Young women need to know that.”
Victoria frequently shares her story because she sees such value in bringing attention to much-needed research. “It sounds cliché, but the truth of the matter is, I think after you’ve gone through it, you really do hope that other people don’t go through it.” Cancer, she says, is quite powerful — but not in the ways you might think. “Cancer changes you, that’s for sure. I focus on the positive things now. And it makes it really easy to help other people. You get extreme joy from it after as much help as you’ve needed.”
Tina is our colleague and dear friend. A merchandise manager here at Vera Bradley, she did have a family history — she was diagnosed about 10 years after her mom, Della. She fought the disease with such strength … a whole lot of spunk. “It’s changed everything. It’s really given me a sense of purpose and it’s built a network of these other pink sisters, and we just face these challenges together.” You have to check out her inspirational podcast, “DJ Breast Cancer”, on Spotify.
Della is Tina’s mom. She’s a two-time breast cancer survivor who says while nothing was harder than watching her own daughter fight this disease, she still finds hope in the advancements she’s seen firsthand. “Since the time I was diagnosed to the time she was, about 10 years, there’s been such advancement in treatments. There are so many more options now. We just want people to know that there is life after that diagnosis.”
When Kim was diagnosed with breast cancer, her thoughts immediately went to her children, who were in elementary and high school at the time. “I knew this was going to be really hard on the family, but as a family, we always would get by.” Her treatment was tough, but, as Kim is quick to point out, she was tougher. “I knew I would fight it. I’m sure every woman or anyone who’s a cancer survivor of any type knows this — you just you get into a warrior mode … We’re all fighting hard as survivors. We need someone out there fighting for us, that can do the research and find out why this is happening.”
Cindy’s two daughters were just in high school when she was diagnosed. She says it was her family that got her through, that, “The first thing that comes to your mind — and I’ve asked other survivors and they say the same thing — is, ‘I’m going to die.’ But then the next breath you look at your husband, and you look at your kids, and you’re like no, I’m going to fight this. I’m going to do whatever they tell me to do to survive.” Her advice for women going through treatment now? “You never can give up. Don’t ever give up. Always, always try to be positive. You really do have to fight.”
Mary Ellen has shared her story for the Foundation many times, and we are so thankful she shared it again with us. “The research is so important. They are finding treatments that are more targeted, and maybe one day we’ll figure out ways to prevent it.” Diagnosed five years ago, today she is focused on making the most of every moment — traveling with family and playing pickleball four times a week. “Once you have a life-changing event like that, you realize you need to re-prioritize. You find out who’s really important in your world. You just take time to appreciate everything.”
Donna was diagnosed after a yearly check-up and mammogram identified a tumor. A biopsy confirmed it was cancer. Donna decided to get a second opinion at Indiana University in Indianapolis, and she’s so glad she did. There they outlined a different kind of treatment that gave Donna real hope. “Once I went down to the Simon Cancer Center and met Dr. Han, I just knew, I just had a gut feeling everything was going to be fine. We caught it early and I think that’s what’s so important. And I try to tell so many people, do those mammograms. And if something does come up, be sure to have a second opinion.”
Joan is the sister of Vera Bradley Co-founder, Barbara Bradley Baekgaard. She was diagnosed through a routine mammogram and credits that early detection with saving her life. “I’ve met so many women and heard so many stories of how they were saved because they went in early.” She is so proud of the research the Vera Bradley Foundation supports and wants everyone to know what an impact the research is making. “Eighty-one cents of every dollar to the Foundation supports critical research — we need to celebrate that more.”
We met Shannon earlier this year at an event in Tennessee. A longtime Vera Bradley customer, she’s a two-time cancer survivor, first beating ovarian cancer and now breast cancer. While she says this campaign took her out of her comfort zone, it was important for her to share her story of hope: “I’m not afraid to try something new. I’m not afraid to dye my hair purple. I’m not afraid to travel somewhere and meet new people and do new things … because I’m fighting cancer, and I’m beating it.”
Later this week we’ll be sharing the various ways you can show your support this October and beyond. In the meantime, learn more about our campaign here.