In 2016, Asia Carter, at the time a 30-year-old single mother of two, found herself staring down a breast cancer diagnosis, double mastectomy and unexpected unemployment. With limited insurance options and a scheduled reconstruction on the horizon, the Dallas-based Alliance in Reconstructive Surgery (AiRS) Foundation stepped in to fill the gap.
The AiRS Foundation is a non-profit organization founded in 2013 by Janet Denlinger and Morgan Hare to provide emotional support and financial resources to women undergoing reconstructive surgery following a breast cancer diagnosis. When Denlinger and Hare, successful businesswomen in their respective fields, felt motivated to give back to their community, they sought out Dr. Rod Rohrich, founding Chairman of the Department of Plastic Surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Together, they established AiRS to work in partnership with physicians throughout the United States to provide desperately needed resources, educate breast cancer patients and support advances in the areas of breast cancer reconstructive surgery.
“Many women either do not know the possibilities available to them or cannot afford the reconstruction that is a vital part of the continued healing for women who have had a mastectomy,” explains co-founder Morgan Hare. She continues, “A mastectomy is just part of the recovery process, both psychologically and physically. Reconstruction is integral to this process of healing, helping to restore a woman’s self-esteem.”
AiRS provides patients with education regarding their surgical options, navigating insurance coverage and obstacles, as well as providing emotional support throughout treatment. To date, AiRS has assisted more than 800 women, most of whom simply needed advice and a support system during the trying time. Additionally, through their grant program, AiRS has eased the financial burden of reconstructive surgery for 150 of those women, including Frisco resident Asia Carter.
In 2016, Asia Carter found a small lump on her breast and went to see her doctor, to which they assured her it was most likely a cyst and to come back in six weeks for a follow-up. When Ms. Carter returned in November, the lump was getting bigger and the doctor immediately sent her to get a mammogram. “It happened so fast, “as Ms. Carter recalls. “I was told immediately that I had cancer, right then and there during my mammogram. I left the doctor’s office in complete shock and not completely understanding what it meant. I was 30 years old and a cancer diagnosis was just not registering.”
Months went by and Ms. Carter was later diagnosed with stage II breast cancer, which changed her treatment plan and she was scheduled for a mastectomy and partial reconstruction. After nine months of chemo and radiation, Ms. Carter was nearing the end of her treatment when she was laid off and no longer had insurance coverage.
Partnering with AiRS was nothing short of providence for Ms. Carter. “I was on a plane,” AiRS co-founder Morgan Hare shares, “when the man sitting next to me asked what I did.” After Hare explained AiRS and their mission, the man told her about a former co-worker, Ms. Carter, who was battling breast cancer. Their company had been bought out by another company earlier that year, at which point Ms. Carter had been laid off and lost her insurance benefits. With two young children, a breast cancer diagnosis and uncertain insurance coverage, she had no way to pay for her treatment and reconstruction. The gentleman and some friends were helping cover some of Ms. Carter’s bills as she applied for jobs, but the looming reconstruction costs were a constant source of worry. “I told him to have Ms. Carter fill out an application and we ended up paying her insurance for several months so she could complete treatments and have reconstructive surgery,” Hare says.
For Ms. Carter, the grant was more than just the necessary funds to cover her reconstruction. “It was a sense of normalcy when my life had been completely flipped upside down and so much was out of my control,” Ms. Carter recounts. “It was therapeutic in a sense. I found myself talking daily to other survivors. In the black community, we don’t talk about it. I felt alone and stripped from myself … I didn’t feel like a human anymore.” Ms. Carter shared how black women are least likely to get breast cancer but most likely to die from it because of lack of treatment. The CDC confirms Ms. Carters sentiments, stating that “black women and white women get breast cancer at about the same rate, but black women die from breast cancer at a higher rate than white women.” Having programs, like AiRS, to financially support women with health crisis is not only life-changing, but lifesaving. “When I connected with AiRS, I could openly talk to them about breast cancer and they celebrated victories with me. They made the process easy, too. They took my information and handled the rest. They paid for my past medical bills which allowed me to move forward with reconstructive surgery.”
While breast cancer is experienced at the individual level, support is needed from family, friends and the local community. The American Cancer Society estimates that the average risk for a woman in the United States developing breast cancer is 13 percent, making it the most common cancer in women beside skin cancers. They estimate greater than 275,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed this year alone.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an opportunity for communities to come around and support survivors, through increased fundraising efforts and community events. Typically, local events and races abound throughout the month. However, due to COVID-19 and social distancing restrictions, most of those events will take a virtual approach this year. The inability to gather in person makes support that much more necessary. Just this past September, the Susan G. Komen Foundation coordinated the 2020 Komen North & West Texas Virtual MORE THAN PINK Walk, with a virtual opening ceremony, virtual walk and virtual awards ceremony. The virtual event raised more than $91,000, greatly surpassing their $60,000 goal! The virtual fundraiser provides lifesaving research to aid in the fight against breast cancer, as well as providing patient support, treatment assistance and even childcare services. As stated on their website, “The fundraising is helping save lives every day through advocacy, fighting for government funding and critical patient support and research. We fight for the rights of patients among policymakers and compassionate care for everyone.”
One avenue for raising awareness and funds for research is the Real Men Wear Pink Campaign sponsored by the American Cancer Society. While breast cancer affects women at a rate 100 times greater than that of men, Real Men Wear Pink brings men into the conversation and community. Leaders around the country leverage the power of pink to raise awareness and funds for the American Cancer Society’s breast cancer initiatives.
Over the last two years, Real Men Wear Pink of North Texas has raised more than $400,000 for breast cancer research and patient services. The American Cancer Society states that COVID-19 will reduce their cancer research funding by as much as 50 percent in 2020. Though, of course, cancer will be no less prevalent during this time. Despite this unfortunate funding shortage, the 32 candidates of the Real Men Wear Pink of North Texas’ goal is to raise $325,000 and have already raised almost $11,000. Every dollar raised helps the American Cancer Society through early detection and prevention, innovative breast cancer research and patient support.
While the support Ms. Carter received from AiRS came through seemingly coincidental circumstances, support should be readily available for women facing breast cancer diagnoses. Ms. Carter was recently diagnosed with stage IV terminal breast cancer and currently undergoing treatment again. She wishes there were more foundations, like AiRS, to support women through the various health issues women face. And she has very encouraging words to anyone staring down a breast cancer diagnosis: “We are told that a survivor is someone who has conquered the disease. But I am here to tell you that YOU are a survivor, right now. Just because you are in it and not on the other side, you are still a survivor.” Let her words ring on … YOU are a survivor.
Join the fight and support survivors through making donations to AiRS, Real Men Wear Pink, or a variety of other local and national breast cancer resources. To donate to Real Mean Wear Pink of North Texas, visit www.realmenwearpinkacs.org/NorthTexasTX and/or AiRS Foundation at https://airsfoundation.org.
Sam Martin is a graphic designer and writer who spends her days chasing two toddlers around their historic home in downtown Frisco. Sam volunteers extensively with Hope Mommies, a Christian support group for women who have lost children.