By Sydney Melson
The Birmingham Times
Nearly seven years ago, Susan Sellers was offered the position as president of St. Vincent’s Foundation. “The next day I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” she said.
As a patient who went through surgery and treatment, Sellers said she better understands those who face the disease and spends a lot of time in activities for survivors and patients currently undergoing treatment.
“These programs are important. Not only do they get great clinical care, but we try to make sure we’re nurturing the other parts of their being, physically, mentally and spiritually,” said Sellers, who was diagnosed after a mammogram.
St. Vincent’s Foundation is a nonprofit under the St. Vincent Health System, a network of hospitals in Central Alabama. The nonprofit works by creating programs that support its patients’ health and wellness. In October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, St. Vincent’s Foundation highlights several of its programs that aim to care for survivors holistically.
For example, Camp Bluebird is a three days, two nights vacation for people with various cancer diagnoses held in the fall and spring with about 150 participants, Sellers said.
“It’s a place for women to get outdoors, and we also have counselors there… It’s a safe space where you can just have a break from cancer and do whatever you want to do.”
At the camp, which began 35 years ago and has been emulated across the country, people engage in art therapy, aerobics, fishing, zip lining and more. Sellers recalled an 85-year-old participant who rode a horse for the first time. “She had always wanted to ride a horse, but the joy on her face, I’ll never forget it,” she said. Due to COVID-19 the camp is on hold, but once it’s safe for at-risk populations to gather, Camp Bluebird will return.
St. Vincent’s also offers support groups and programs open to patients from any health system, said Sellers, president of the Foundation since February, 2014.
One is Surviving Well which began last spring, an 8-week course aiming to teach women about diet and physical wellness. “We partnered with the Laura Crandall Brown Foundation [a Birmingham nonprofit that supports resources and research for gynecological cancers] and created a program that focuses on the body and nutrition,” Sellers said. Surviving Well focuses on cooking healthy meals and learning yoga for a mental and physical boost. “If you’ve had a mastectomy, your muscles in that area are not as strong, so yoga therapy can help.”
Eating well is imperative for a better chance at beating cancer, too, Sellers said. “We make sure we have dieticians on staff to make sure [women who have been diagnosed] eating well. After being diagnosed with cancer, many people have to make drastic changes to their diet,” she said.
The first group of women consisted of 20 people due to limited space, but Sellers said the Foundation plans to expand the program when the time is right. “Seventy-five percent of the patients attended all of the classes, which is unheard of… Everyone has commitments or might not feel well, but people stuck with it.”
The Foundation also offers a mammography fund to provide care with a focus on the poor and marginalized, she said. Breast cancer treatment is more successful if diagnosed early. “If I had not been able to afford a mammogram, my situation and my life would be completely different,” she said.
The mammogram fund began last year with contributions from groups such as Brenda’s Brown Bosom Buddies, a breast cancer support nonprofit in Birmingham as well as the Susan G. Komen Foundation, St. Vincent’s Foundation can currently support over 200 mammograms for those who need them.
St. Vincent’s provides a number of resources such as transportation and lodging to make sure patients get what they need. “You might be coming [to St. Vincent’s] from an hour away, and you’re driving back and forth 30 days in a row to get your treatments, that’s a lot of gas,” she said. Sellers said the foundation also wants to make sure that when someone finishes chemo they don’t have to walk to a bus stop for a ride home.
Because of COVID-19 there have been changes, Sellers said. “Support groups meet virtually, the nutritionist does some virtual cooking demonstrations,” she said. “Transportation and lodging assistance, those are still going, too.”
St. Vincent’s support group system is the largest in Birmingham. “We typically have about 45 participants at a time, and it’s all survivor-run,” she said. “They meet once a month. Sometimes they’ll have a program for the month, such as a talk by an expert on common cancer side effects, or sometimes it’s just a place to chat. Many of these women are like sisters.”
Support groups and breast cancer awareness have evolved over the past three decades, Sellers said. “Twenty-five, 30 years ago, women would never tell anybody they had breast cancer… “People were afraid to say anything because you knew you weren’t going to survive, but now we know breast cancer affects 1 in 8 women. We’re proud, we wear pink, there is nothing to be ashamed of.”
For more information, call St. Vincent’s Foundation at 205-558-3850 or visit online at stvhs.com and on Facebook and Twitter at St. Vincent’s Foundation.