Breast Connect a treasured resource for breast cancer patients

Tracy Haun OwensWest Knoxville

For the woman who has just received a diagnosis of breast cancer, dealing with the hundreds of details surrounding the illness and its treatment can be instantly overwhelming. Thanks to the not-for-profit Breast Connect, help and support are only one click away.

Breast Connect connects East Tennessee breast cancer patients and survivors with resources and community as they navigate the disease. On the organization’s home page, a “Newly Diagnosed?” link takes the new patient from “educating yourself about breast cancer” through “preparing for your first appointment.”

There is also a private Facebook group, now 600 strong.

The Breast Connect team walking for a cure at the annual Susan G. Komen event

“Whatever you’ve gone through recently, you can feel safe posting and asking questions,” says Nina Howell, president and co-founder of Breast Connect.

Women ask everything from how to shower with post-mastectomy surgical drains to how to talk to their children about why Mommy is losing her hair. And just as members don’t offer medical advice, physicians might not be able to answer these kinds of very specific questions about day-to-day life with breast cancer.

“It’s different when it’s a survivor talking about her experience,” Howell says.

Howell was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and underwent a lumpectomy and radiation treatment. She began gathering others together for a “Happy Hour for a Cure” to talk about their experiences and point each other toward help. In 2014, she and Allen Pannell, who had lost his wife, Amy, to cancer, founded Breast Connect. The group received not-for-profit status in 2015.

One of the most popular aspects of Breast Connect is the Sisterhood Program, where survivors are able to pay the support they received forward by being paired with someone recently diagnosed with a similar kind of breast cancer.

“Breast cancer is very complicated,” Howell says. The cancer might be estrogen-receptor positive or negative, progesterone-receptor positive or negative, and positive or negative for the protein HER2/neu. Those diagnosed can be triple positive, triple negative and combinations in between.

“Each one of those diagnoses means a different treatment,” Howell says. “We try really hard to match people who went through the same thing.” Seeing someone thriving after treatment is a big boost to the person just entering this new world, she says.

“It gives them hope,” she says.

In addition to pairing “sisters,” Breast Connect throws a Friendsgiving for its community each year. Every other month, the group sponsors dinner and a speaker, often a physician, dietician or other medical professional. Breast Connect also sends flowers to women who’ve just had breast cancer surgery.

Funds go to the above initiatives, to the website and to the cost of an administrative employee. Donations are welcome.

This week, as Knoxville-based Bliss opened its store in West Town Mall on April 1, a portion of the proceeds from sales have gone to support Breast Connect. In a press release, owners Scott Schimmel and Lisa Sorensen said that Sorensen had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year and Breast Connect has been “invaluable.”

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