This year marks the 25th anniversary for local breast cancer support group.
Although the official group name is Encouragement through Caring (ETC), many joke that Extra Tough Chicks should be the real name. After a look through this breast cancer support group’s history, both names are accurate representations of what has become a special sisterhood.
ETC came together in the spring of 1989, when a handful of breast cancer survivors decided to start a support group. Rosie Verslues, the only surviving founding member, recalls her early experiences.
“Jean Wankum, a former nurse and dear friend, called to ask if I would be a part of a cancer support group,” she says. “At first I was hesitant because the meetings were being held at St. Mary’s where I had my treatments, and it meant reliving those memories. At that point I was a three-year survivor.”
Verslues admits it took her a good six months of attending monthly meetings before the treatment memories didn’t overwhelm her, but soon she found a deeper meaning for going.
“We are an upbeat bunch,” Verslues says. “The support I received from this group helped me to open up and talk about my experiences. Our stories help others in a lot of different ways. Women who have recently been diagnosed tell me they are encouraged that I have survived for so long.”
Fortunately Verslues’ cancer was caught in the early stages in 1986, and though she had another lump removed in 1995, her fight to help others remains tireless through 25 years of countless volunteer hours and just being a friend. She was recognized with the 2013 Volunteer of the Year by the American Cancer Society as well as other awards for breast cancer awareness and volunteerism.
“As I approach my 28th year as a survivor, I could not be more grateful,” Verslues says. “The morning of my surgery, I asked God to allow me to see my children graduate and get married and even allow me the chance to enjoy my grandchildren. He has blessed me by answering all of those prayers and more. I volunteer because I am very thankful, and I want to help others.”
Gina Martin, a member of ETC since being diagnosed in 1994 with stage-three medullary carcinoma, ran the course from fear to hope to action by joining the group.
“Initially I was scared to death,” Martin says. “I just prayed to God that he would allow me to live long enough to raise our three small children. It was hard to think of a way to tell them and help them understand.
“Not only did I survive an aggressive form of breast cancer,” Martin continues, “but I was able to see my children grow up and so much more. Every day is a blessing. I hope I am an encouragement to other breast cancer patients.”
In addition to personal battles with breast cancer, Martin has six family members who have been afflicted with cancer. Martin says she believes that through the grace of God and through the support she both gives and receives, she has been able to keep her illness at bay.
Martin has volunteered her time with the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life since it began in Jefferson City in 1996. Her roles have been numerous, including event chair, event co-chair, committee chairperson, committee member, team captain and team member. She is also a Reach to Recovery volunteer, visiting newly diagnosed breast cancer patients, offering them reference information from the ACS and giving personal support and friendship.
Sandy Sneller, survivor since 1996 and also an ETC member, says she appreciates that certain taboos about breast cancer are shifting.
“Our group is very uplifting,” Sneller says. “It is a place where we can tell stupid stuff about ourselves and our condition. When we forget something, we blame it on ‘chemo brain,’ and everyone in the group laughs and understands. Years ago there was such a stigma about having breast cancer. Coming to our group helps us to be able to say the word ‘cancer,’ and whatever we are facing, we have support, and we can move beyond the circumstances.
“I was diagnosed with stage-two breast cancer that was also connected to my chest wall,” Sneller continues. “It spread to ovarian cancer, which lead to a complete hysterectomy shortly after the first surgery. I had a progressive type like my dad and was scared it would not go into remission.”
Although the women involved with ETC are encouraging to one another, they are also there to help members through tragedy.
“Of course we have a lot of casualties in our group,” Sneller says. “Some women do not survive long, and we try to be supportive of surviving spouses and families by bringing a meal or just staying in touch. Sometimes we have husbands who leave their wives, and this is especially devastating. We are here to support each other through it all. Hope is the word you never quit saying.”
Sneller has served on the ACS board and been involved with fundraising events including Relay for Life and the Boost BBQ committee.
ETC meets the second Thursday of each month at 6:30 p.m. at the Goldschmidt Cancer Center. Carol England, oncology nurse with Goldschmidt, attends the meetings and is available to answer questions and offer support to breast cancer survivors and their families. Members also reach out to newly diagnosed breast cancer patients by making home visits, where they deliver hope and baskets filled with favors and helpful information. To learn more about ETC, call 573-635-4839.