Life is full of surprises. One day, you’re tooling along minding your own business when, BAM!, something happens to turn your life upside down. That “something” for me was breast cancer. I received my diagnosis on April 30, 2014. Just a little more than two years later, I was smack in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure with my relatively new friend and fellow cancer survivor, Laura Renegar – all thanks to my employer RSM US LLP (RSM).
It’s hard to believe that two-and-a-half short years ago, Laura and I didn’t even know one another. Sadly, we met as a result of our diagnoses. But happily, we did meet and, as a result of our friendship and my employment with RSM, we were able to bring mammograms to 200 women in Jamaica – a country Laura’s heart calls home, although she lives near me in Charlotte. Jamaica is where Laura and her husband honeymooned seven years ago. It’s a place they return to year-after-year to celebrate life. And it’s now a part of our shared story – a story of friendship, hope and survival.
Laura has been actively involved in the breast cancer community in the U.S. for years. She began raising money for and awareness about the importance of early detection and regular screening after her mother battled the disease three times, and ultimately lost. Then, the unimaginable happened: Laura received her own diagnosis. After undergoing her personal battle with the disease, Laura is now a five-year survivor. And she continues to give back to the breast cancer community. In fact that’s how we met. A mutual friend introduced us shortly after I received my diagnosis and Laura became one of my biggest cheerleaders, supporting me before, during and after every chemo treatment, every surgery, every doctor’s visit, every medical test, and the uncertainty and anxiety related to each. While I had MANY, MANY “angels” loving me through my illness, Laura was able to provide a unique perspective because she had ‘been through it.’ She was a survivor. And I wanted to be one, too!
Fast-forward about a year-and-a-half and RSM, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, held an employee contest late last fall encouraging employees to share their ideas for what they would do to help celebrate this anniversary if they were selected as recipients of one of the firm’s 90-90-9: Pursue Your Passion awards. The program awarded $90,000 ($10,000 each) to nine employees in celebration of the firm’s 90th anniversary. I immediately thought of Laura, and wondered if there might be something I could do to thank her for everything she’d done for me. We talked. We had an idea. We submitted our passion. And we won. We were going to Jamaica to bring mammograms to the women in that country!
We packed our bags and headed to Jamaica June 18, 2016, and returned a week later after lots of sharing.
- We shared stories of hope and survivorship with the women of Jamaica – one-on-one, as each woman prepared to enter the mammography room.
- We shared tears with the women who were afraid, and with one who had been recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.
- We shared smiles with those who got the “all clear” from their mammograms.
- We shared hugs with those who had suspicious findings and who had to go to the next level for ultrasounds, and with those who then had to go to the hospital for biopsies.
- We shared information, hopes and dreams – with Dr. Titus, chief medical officer at St. Ann’s Bay Hospital, where a staff of 90 doctors works tirelessly to keep the people of Jamaica healthy, and with Dr. Neita, who so graciously agreed to perform the 200 mammograms at a discounted rate to accommodate as many women as possible.
- (Laura and I even shared a room at Couples Tower Island resort to help keep costs down, as we wanted as much of the funds contributed by RSM to go to the women of Jamaica as possible.)
- And we shared laughter – lots and lots of laughter.
- We laughed with nearly 30 survivors during a luncheon sponsored by RSM.
- We laughed with the resort staff who were happy to see Laura (a repeat visitor) and who were so welcoming to me.
- We laughed with our driver, Henry, who delivered us safely to the clinic each morning while telling us about life in Jamaica.
- We laughed with the Jamaica Cancer Society (JCS) workers and volunteers, especially with Yulit Gordon, one of our original contacts on the island who helped orchestrate our visit and who orchestrated a bit of downtime for lunch at Miss T’s (a local favorite) and an afternoon visit of bobsledding and sight-seeing at Mystic Mountain; Marilyn Williams, who leads the Ocho Rios chapter of the JCS and who has a passion for helping women in her country maintain their health; with Madilyn Whitter, who is a JCS board member and owner of Glenn’s restaurant, which provided the venue and delicious for the survivor luncheon; and Beverly Sailsman, JCS volunteer extraordinaire, who not only helped at the clinic, but chauffeured us around the island, showing us off-the-beaten-path sites that we would have never seen otherwise.
In short, we shared our hearts. And we are so grateful to RSM for sharing its success to make this dream a reality.
Read Terri’s 90-90-9 submission.
Donate to the Jamaica Cancer Society. (Tag “Terri and Laura” if you want to let the JCS know that you’re supporting them due to their story.)