SUPPORTING PATIENTS.FUNDING CARE.PROVIDING HOPE.
“You can still be brave and strong and get help,” shared Alicia, a recent Ellie Fund patient.
Asking for support is often the only barrier to receiving support from Ellie Fund, whose only requirements are applicants must be in treatment for breast cancer and either living or receiving treatment in Massachusetts. All too often, Ellie Fund hears from patients like Alicia who question themselves, “I felt weird asking for help. Could I even be eligible?”
Alicia and her husband were both fully employed and fully insured when she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2019 and then thyroid cancer in 2020. That did not stop the medical bills from piling up from her deductibles and copays. In addition to her cancer diagnosis, the family had their daughter headed to her freshman year at UMass Amherst and their 13-year-old son at home to think about.
Through the help of her social worker at Dana-Farber, Alicia connected with Ellie Fund. Their family of four was granted a six-month grant of gas and Big Y grocery gift cards. Assistance with their gas costs was especially important during Alicia’s chemotherapy. She lives in Rutland, Massachusetts which is about 52 miles outside of Boston. Due to COVID restrictions, Alicia’s husband would drive her to Dana Farber, drive home while she was receiving treatment and then back to pick her up, racking up over 200 miles in a day. After her chemotherapy, Alicia had to drive into Boston daily for radiation. “The gas cards allowed us to fill up our tanks and then budget more money towards my hospital payment plans.” The financial repercussions of cancer treatment create toxic stress for patients. Ellie Fund’s goal with its financial support is to allow patients some breathing room as they plan for the future. “During all of the craziness, the Ellie Fund gift cards were little blessings that lifted me up,” Alicia warmly stated.
Alicia adjusted her whole family’s lifestyle after her diagnosis. “It was important to me to eat really healthy during treatment and remove processed foods from the entire family’s diet,” she explained. Unfortunately, fresh produce and healthy foods are more expensive. The Big Y gift cards gave Alicia flexibility in her grocery budget. It also gave her something to look forward to during treatment. Grocery shopping was her only outing besides doctors appointments during the thick of the pandemic. It was her time to herself and a way to continue to provide and feed her whole family.
Ellie Fund is more than just a grant-making organization. They want patients to know there is a community behind them. Alicia felt that warmth, “It felt good to be cared about… To know someone read my application and listened to what we needed.” Regardless of the size of a person’s support system, Ellie Fund can be part of the team supporting patients through the difficulties of breast cancer treatment.
At first Ileana blamed her persistent cough on her blood pressure medication that kept being changed. It was the start of the pandemic, and getting into a doctor’s office was close to impossible. Finally in May, Ileana went to urgent care and was first given antibiotics and then steroids to treat what the doctor said was pneumonia. Her breathing was only getting worse. In September, she went back to the urgent care center and was told she needed to go the emergency room because of her low oxygen levels. Wanting to avoid the high-cost ambulance ride, Ileana refused and instead drove herself to the ER. That ER visit would change her life forever.
After some tests, the ER doctor delivered Ileana news she did not expect. It was cancer causing her breathing issues. This wasn’t the first time Ileana, a single mom of a teenage daughter, was told she had cancer. She was in remission for 11 years from her first breast cancer diagnosis. This time it was different. The cancer was metastatic. It had already spread from her breast to her ribs, back and lymph nodes.
Leading up to her first follow up appointment Ileana had a feeling of impending doom. How would she provide for her teenage daughter? How long did she have?
Ileana immigrated to the US from Panama and had no family in the area and only a few close friends. After that first appointment, Ileana got a better understanding of her diagnosis, “I’m not dying yet,” she shared. Although there was no cure, there was treatment available to keep the cancer from growing and spreading.
Next, she embarked on the journey of living with cancer. Ileana broke the news to her daughter. After taking some time to emotionally process it, she promised herself she would keep a strong face on for her daughter. Weekly oral chemotherapy, frequent labs, and endless appointments became Ileana’s new normal.
Ileana is fully employed and fully insured but that didn’t stop the medical bills from stretching her budget thin. “I had just come out of the hospital and there were so many tests and so many bills,” she explained. Her social worker applied for Ileana to receive support from Ellie Fund in forms of grocery gift cards and gas cards. “Ellie Fund gave me a breath. I could budget and prioritize. When you’re on a budget you must make tough decisions. With Ellie Fund’s gift cards, we could buy healthy foods and my daughter could still get her snacks,” Ileana shared. With Covid as a major worry, Ileana sent her daughter into the store with a budget and grocery list. The young girl handled the family of two’s grocery shopping.
Ellie Fund gave Ileana and her daughter more than just gift cards, it provided emotional support as well. “Ellie Fund is very understanding of the disease and the needs of the people.” Ellie Fund knows a cancer diagnosis is not just about treating the disease but also acknowledging the financial and emotional stress that comes along with treatment.
It is almost a year since Ileana’s diagnosis, but she is not slowing down. “Cancer doesn’t identify me. I do not live every day like I am dying of cancer.” She works hard to be strong for her daughter and continues to work full time.
It was finally time for Calandra, a wife and mom of two, to start taking of care of herself again. For two years, Calandra cared and then mourned for her mother who passed away from anaplastic thyroid cancer and was her brother’s health care proxy during the planning of his heart transplant. Then she found a small lump on her breast. “As much as I wanted it to be a mosquito bite, I knew it was going to be more,” said Calandra.
First, she went in for a mammogram and then a biopsy. Next, her voicemail filled up with messages to appointments from many different doctors. Quickly, she checked her patient portal and saw she had tested positive for invasive ductal carcinoma. For three and a half hours, she waited for her own doctor to call and give her the results over the phone. The entire time, she thought she was going to die.
Calandra had a gut feeling that this oncology team was not the right fit for her. She headed into Dana-Farber for a second opinion, a world class cancer hospital in Boston.It was there she met her oncology team that discovered things that the other doctors missed.Calandra made the decision to switch her care to Dana-Farber who also provided her with a team that not only handled her medical issues but wanted to make sure other areas of her life stayed on track.Her team at Dana-Farber would guide her through more than a year of treatment and support. “I took this time to renew my faith and not spend time endlessly researching my disease.” She trusted her team to treat, guide and support her.Calandra knew that only thing that she could control was, “who my doctors were.”
Even though she was fully insured, Calandra and her husband began to worry about finances. There was the deductible, the time away from work, and the costs of driving over 80 miles round trip to her treatments. Trusting her team at Dana-Farber, she agreed to apply to Ellie Fund for support with groceries and her transportation to treatment. The organization seemed so familiar to her. Then it clicked. Calandra’s mom received gas gift cards during her battle with anaplastic thyroid cancer during the year Calandra used to drive her mom to and from treatment.
“Ellie Fund let us breath and took the edge off,” explained Calandra when she thought of receiving her grants from Ellie Fund. Calandra’s friends and family used the grocery gift cards to prepare meals for her and her family. The gift cards enabled Calandra’s support system to help her more and create less of a burden on themselves. Ellie Fund became part of Calandra’s beloved team.
Calandra remained positive and became more steadfast in her faith, even when she received a second cancer diagnosis during her treatment. Continuing on the course and trusting her team, Calandra finished treatment in November of 2020 and has been cancer free since October 2019. “Breast cancer was tough, but it was not the hardest year of my life… because of my team. My journey is a beautiful story filled with joy, love and faith.”
Follow-up care after breast cancer treatment is so important and having an oncology team you trust is paramount. Maryanne, a former professor at George Washington University, knows first-hand the importance of follow up after her initial diagnosis of stage 1 breast cancer in 2004.
For 16 years, her oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) kept a close eye on Maryanne. Although Maryanne’s results were okay in 2019, her oncologist did not trust them because of an elevated marker level. In the spring of 2020, during the height of the pandemic Maryanne went in for more testing. Her oncology team found a mutated breast cancer cell on her spine. Without the concern and quick actions of her team, Maryanne might have been paralyzed.
First, Maryanne started an oral medication as her first round of treatment to shrink her lesion. Although her daughter was only about two miles away from her Brighton apartment, 77-year-old Maryanne felt completely isolated. With her immune system compromised from treatment, Maryanne was nervous about the COVID-19 pandemic that raged on outside. Usually a busy woman, accustomed to dog sitting for her friends and neighbors, visiting with her daughter, Maryanne felt the darkness of a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis on top of a worldwide pandemic. Soon she needed to start daily radiation treatments at the main campus of MGH, in the heart of Boston. Although she is savvy with public transportation, the one-hour commute on the subway was out of the question. Maryanne worried.
As a former political science professor, Maryanne is an avid news watcher. Tuned into WCVB one night in June, she was introduced to Ellie Fund. It was the organization’s first ever virtual “5 for Ellie” event. Patients shared their breast cancer journeys and how Ellie Fund helped them through their treatment. “I need to apply,” thought Maryanne. She picked up the phone and dialed. Anne, Ellie Fund’s patient coordinator walked Maryanne through the application process and the type of services she would benefit from most.
“Ellie Fund was the something positive I needed. It really was a miracle to me. The helping hand I needed,” said Maryanne. Ellie Fund provided Maryanne with Uber gift cards to get to and from treatment and Whole Foods gift cards. “I couldn’t have afforded to get to treatment in the Uber XL at the height of the Pandemic. You were the only help that was working for what I needed,” explained Maryanne.
Holidays are especially difficult times for breast cancer patients as the typical social get togethers are unsafe for someone with a suppressed immune system. For Thanksgiving, Ellie Fund volunteers delivered a traditional holiday meal and flowers. It was just the pick-me-up Maryanne needed. “It was a touching moment. I’ve never received such beautifully, artistically arranged flowers. There was a beautiful card with a dog that had soulful eyes. I kept it and look at it often.”
Although Maryanne was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, her oncologist is cautiously optimistic. Now vaccinated, she is ready to embrace whatever comes next… including resuming her favorite activity of sitting dogs.
“In the darkest time of Covid, Ellie Fund was a beacon of light. Human kindness matters.”
At 31 years old, Alyssa was focused on her goals like buying a home, a strong relationship with her boyfriend, and excelling at her job as a supervisor in an Early Intervention program for children. At her core she is a planner who is focused on taking care of others. She did not expect to feel a lump in her breast that would lead to a diagnosis of invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer with HER 2 positive genes that took her through 16 treatments of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and then 30 days of radiation.
Even though her doctor said cancer was unlikely, Alyssa knew in her gut something was wrong. The diagnosis came in January 2020. “The hardest part was telling my mom and my sister. I asked my mom to tell my dad. I just couldn’t say ‘I have cancer’ one more time that day,” Alyssa explained. Her February was full of fertility treatments to enable her to freeze her eggs. Cancer treatment can impact women’s quality of eggs and their ability to have children.
In March, just as the COVID-19 Pandemic began to surge, Alyssa began 16 treatments of chemotherapy over 20 weeks. “I kept my head down and pushed through my appointments. My side effects weren’t as bad as I expected.” Alyssa continued to work and was able to do so because her job was now virtual. In a strange way, COVID was a silver lining for Alyssa. It forced her to slow down and enabled her to continue work. This young woman is a doer. She sets goals and achieves them! On her last day of chemotherapy, she planned and completed at 5k race!
Then came the radiation. Alyssa was exhausted, sleeping ten hours a day. The emotional and mental exhaustion of a breast cancer diagnosis caught up to her. Originally, she did not want to cut back or stop working. She had goals to achieve and a house fund to build! That is when Ellie Fund came in to help. Ellie Fund provided grocery gift cards and prepared meals to Alyssa for three months. “Ellie Fund let me stop working and take the time I needed to focus on my recovery,” Alyssa shared. She budgeted her grocery gift cards to ensure she maximized their help and saved the prepared meals for when she knew she was going to be at her most tired.
“Ellie Fund was the only program that would talk to me while I was still working because they don’t ask about income,” Alyssa shared. Ellie Fund understands the financial toxicity of breast cancer.
Just because a person’s previous W-2 makes them look comfortable on paper; it does not reflect their needs during cancer treatment. Without Ellie Fund, Alyssa may have felt she had to rush back to work. Instead, she could plan, strategize and focus on her total health.
Even during her exhaustion Alyssa needed to stay busy. Being someone who is always looking to help others, Alyssa created a comprehensive resource list that she is teaming up with survivingbreastcancer.org to distribute to help others.
As of 2021, Alyssa has almost completed treatment and gone back to work. She has immunotherapy scheduled every three weeks until June 8th. Alyssa and her boyfriend will close on their home together in just a few weeks. Goal achieved!
“My name is Lauren and I was a recipient of an Ellie Fund Grant. I was able to get grocery gift cards and pre portioned meals. The gift cards were awesome to have for everything my family of 4 needed, and I was able to choose the grocery store that worked best for me making it super convenient. I also got prepared dinners that were delivered to my house. All I had to do was cook them with the simple instructions enclosed and my husband, kids and I had a terrific home cooked meal, that was so easy, especially when I wasn’t feeling well. Being diagnosed with breast cancer, is hard enough, throw in being diagnosed during a pandemic and everything changes! It was very difficult to go through surgery and treatments all while feeling alone because I couldn’t have anyone accompany me to the appointments. Luckily my amazing family and friends were always waiting for me. I was also incredibly lucky to have the Ellie Fund help me during this difficult time. I am feeling better every day and I will always be grateful to the Ellie Fund for helping me during this time in my life! “
With a baby at home the last thing Jennifer Gale ever imagined was a breast cancer diagnosis in her 30s. After finding the lump and seeing her doctor, she entered a whirlwind of testing and planning. Jennifer’s cancer was aggressive and would need a bold treatment plan.
First was four months of chemotherapy, then a lumpectomy, followed by weeks of daily radiation treatment. How was this going to work with her daily commute from the South Shore into Boston? “It was a daunting decision because you don’t know how you will respond to treatment and if you can work or not.” Jennifer decided to take a medical leave of absence from work. With her husband going in for back surgery, it was a 1- 2 punch.
It was at Dana-Farber Cancer Center at South Shore Health, Jennifer connected with a resource specialist in the oncology department who introduced her to Ellie Fund and its services. Needing her mother to drive her to and from chemotherapy and her husband at home unable to care for her daughter, Jennifer asked Ellie Fund for a child-care reimbursement. One day per week her daughter was able to socialize and play at daycare, while Jennifer received treatment. “The childcare help was the missing piece that stitched my treatment planning together.” She also utilized Ellie Fund’s grocery gift card services. “Going to your mailbox and opening grocery gift cards is a feeling of relief I cannot describe,” explained Jennifer.
Young and otherwise healthy, Jennifer responded well to chemotherapy and even went back to work part-time when she could during her treatment. “I was bald, but I felt beautiful.” With an optimistic outlook Jennifer was able to find a silver lining in her breast cancer journey – the extra time she was able to spend with her daughter.
Camille was wrapping up teaching a power yoga class, having not yet shared her recent stage 1 triple negative breast cancer diagnosis with any students. While she was teaching, she really didn’t want to think too much about her upcoming scheduled surgeries, and the chemotherapy and radiation that would follow. At the end of the class though, she decided to open up to a student turned friend who had recently experienced her own breast cancer journey. Her friend told her about an organization in Massachusetts that helped breast cancer patients with the only requirement being that you had to be in treatment. Camille kept Ellie Fund in the back of her mind in case she needed it.
In the hours and days of planning and oncology consults, Camille never could have imagined that a worldwide pandemic would hit, further shaking her world. She planned to teach classes between treatments, when she felt well enough to do so. Her first treatment she was able to bring her partner and a friend to sit with her through the hours of chemotherapy. Once COVID-19 cases spiked, however, no one was allowed to keep her company, and teaching was no longer possible. Due to her suppressed immune system.
Camille had to remain even more isolated then most during the long, uncertain spring. Trips to the grocery store were out of the question and ordering take out was too much risk of exposure. This put the responsibility of shopping and meal prep for their family of three on her partner
It was a relief when Ellie Fund accepted Camille’s application and began to bring prepared meals to the family. “My first meal delivery arrived along with a beautiful bouquet of flowers. I wasn’t expecting that,” Camille said emotionally. Her family was impressed with the quality of the meals. “I didn’t have very high expectations, but was happily surprised when the meals were tasty and fresh.” Her extended support system had to remain socially distant but Ellie Fund helped to fill the void. “Having Ellie Fund’s support brought a little bit of normalization into our lives which really helped.”
Breast cancer is an emotional rollercoaster. Jennifer felt alone at times. Being young, she didn’t know anyone else that had breast cancer. She found support through a cancer support community group and through Ellie Fund. “Ellie Fund being a local organization is everything. I have a personal connection with the staff. They were able to listen to my needs and accommodate with assistance,” Jennifer said. Healing needs a holistic approach.
Since Jennifer’s recovery, she has stayed in touch with Ellie Fund by volunteering and giving back. She has loved playing golf at the annual Real Golfers Wear Pink Tournament and enjoyed the fancy evening at the annual Red Carpet Gala.
The first seven months were full of uncertainty for Camille and her family. While the pandemic raged on, Camille was limited to her home and hospital undergoing surgeries, chemotherapy, and then daily radiation. As the summer is nearing its end, so has Camille’s treatment. Her final radiation treatment is complete, and she reports cheerfully that she is feeling really good! Camille is so grateful to her oncology teams and also to the Ellie Fund for their support. Ellie Fund is proud to have been part of her journey and a resource to her family.
Rhoda debated skipping her annual mammogram in April 2017. She had just received a bill of clean health from a similar screening a few months earlier for a specific issue her doctor was following. As an ultrasound and imaging professional, Rhoda knew she should still go to the appointment just in case
Soon after, the call came, additional tests were run, and she received a breast cancer diagnosis. It was overwhelming news to receive. Thoughts raced through her mind, “How will I cope? Can I work? Rhoda and her husband knew they had to get through the next week, to her youngest daughter’s college graduation, before they could tell their kids.
It was a picture-perfect day with her four children and husband together celebrating the momentous occasion of her baby receiving her college diploma. After lunch and before her kids went their separate ways, Rhoda broke the news of her diagnosis to her adult children. With conviction and strength, she consoled her children, “This will be okay. It’s treatable. You hear things happening to others and now it’s happening to our family, but it will be okay. We just have to help each other out.” That positive, straightforward outlook is how Rhoda got through her year of treatment.
Rhoda was fully employed and insured and was surrounded by friends, family, and her church community. Ellie Fund was still able to become part of her support system when she was introduced to them through her oncologist’s office. No one plans for a cancer diagnosis. Patients can be financially secure but as treatment goes on for months and sometimes years circumstances change, and work benefits diminish. Ellie Fund allows patients to pick their top needed services as every patient’s priorities and needs are different. Grocery and gas gift cards were the biggest help to Rhoda and her family.
“Ellie Fund was the most welcoming thing for me,” Rhoda noted. “At first, you think this is the end of everything. Then they come to your side and ask what you need and help you the best they can. I didn’t realize there was someone out there fighting for me and that I was not alone.”
Throughout the pandemic, Rhoda thought of the people getting a breast cancer diagnosis while being laid off or furloughed due to COVID-19 and the additional financial stress and isolation they would feel. When her daughter Vimbai mentioned the want to positively contribute to the community through fundraising, Rhoda reminded her of Ellie Fund’s impact on their family. Vimbai is now hosting a running fundraiser this month which has already raised more than $2,000!
Ellie Fund is able to serve close to 1,000 patients each year because of the generosity of our community members like Rhoda and her family.