is a Philadelphia writer
One year after beating breast cancer, Sue Weldon met a young woman who was about to begin treatment. The woman marveled at how healthy Weldon looked and apparently felt. Weldon said it was no accident: During treatment, she'd created her own healing plan, spending about $6,000 out-of-pocket on nontraditional treatments, including yoga and acupuncture.
The young woman started to cry, saying she could never afford such a program. That's why Weldon founded Unite for HER in 2009. "HER" is an acronym for "Helping Empower and Restore." The nonprofit organization partners with local hospitals to choose breast cancer patients who would benefit from a year of free wellness therapies and initiatives, including professional counseling, fitness memberships, nutrition and cooking lessons, yoga, acupuncture, reiki, and oncology massage.
"Our doctors do a tremendous job treating the cancer, but there are so many side effects and symptoms that come along with the drugs," said Weldon, who lives in West Chester. "We wanted to create the integrated program promoting physical and emotional wellness that seemed to be missing."
In 2010, Unite for HER partnered with one hospital and reached 24 women. In 2016, the nonprofit worked with 16 local hospitals and provided care to more than 1,000 women.
Five other hospitals are eager to be included. Expansion efforts received a boost when Weldon in November won the 2016 Philly Health Hero challenge, an initiative sponsored by Philadelphia Magazine and Independence Blue Cross. The award, which came with a $10,000 prize, recognizes local people and organizations that make the region a healthier and better place. The winner is determined by online voting. Three finalists were also awarded $2,500 prizes.
"People voted every day, and it's so validating," Weldon said. "What a tribute to our women. They look at me and see themselves and they want to survive."
Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women, according to the American Cancer Society. About 12 percent of American women will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime. About 40,500 women die from breast cancer each year.
Unite for HER looks for ways to address the PTSD-like symptoms some women experience after the removal of one or both breasts and treatment side effects, including loss of hair, sensitive skin, mouth ulcers, and fatigue. It is not a one-size-fits-all organization. After the hospitals suggest clients to the nonprofit, those women are invited to a daylong seminar that showcases the many treatments and programs available.
Then, armed with a "Wellness Passport," the women can pick which ones are right for them. Some clients opt to work with a dietitian who will shop and cook with them. Others seek more traditional treatments, like exercise or talk therapy, while the more adventurous consider reiki or oncology massage. Each client receives about $2,000 worth of treatments during her yearlong partnership. That money can be used as the client sees fit, perhaps with $500 going toward five professional therapy sessions, $1,350 for 12 acupuncture treatments, and $150 buying two massage treatments.
"We just get them started. Some women say: 'I never thought I'd use acupuncture. I never thought I'd do yoga,' " Weldon said. "All of our providers are vetted. We always make sure there's education behind the offerings."
Weldon worries that people are becoming desensitized to breast cancer because "there's a lot of pink out there," she said. She urges people to look beyond the ribbons and walks. Many of the women who receive Unite for HER services are young, in their 20s and 30s. This year, Weldon attended funerals for three women under 35 who died from breast cancer.
"This used to be our grandma's disease," Weldon said. "Now you're hearing about young women who have to consider freezing their eggs or who are facing early menopause. You never used to hear about that."
Unite for HER stays connected to its clients after their year of chosen therapies, staying in touch via online efforts, community wellness events, and other outreach programs.
"It's a long journey, it's a hard journey, and everyone handles it differently, but they all know it's a journey that's life-changing for them," Weldon said. "We're here to make sure it's a positive one, so they feel in control and better than they were before."