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Grand Island friends help local cancer patients for a decade

October 7, 2018

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (AP) — Two friends took their separate battles with cancer and turned it into a campaign to help others fighting the disease.

A decade ago Lisa Willman and Julie Pfeifer started GRACE Cancer Foundation. The local nonprofit provides financial support to Grand Island area families going through treatment for any type of cancer.

GRACE was born from a modest beginning. After going through their own treatments for breast cancer, Willman and Pfeifer wanted to raise funds to supply other cancer patients with robes to wear while receiving chemotherapy and radiation.

The response to their effort was overwhelming. Support from the community grew, and the simple attempt to provide cancer patients with robes led to the establishment of GRACE.

Neither Willman nor Pfeifer had intention of starting a foundation. Since they have, more than 500 families from Grand Island and the surrounding area have received support from the organization. The foundation has raised thousands of dollars through fundraising efforts, the Grand Island Independent reported.

“It’s amazing to see two people who just wanted to give robes back to the Cancer Treatment Center have turned this into a massive community impact that has helped so many families going through a difficult time,” said Sarah Koch, executive director of GRACE Cancer Foundation.

The foundation provides assistance to families for house payments, rent, utilities, insurance, medical bills, gasoline and other necessities. That assistance is meant to help take away financial stress and allow families and individuals to focus on getting better.

Both Willman and Pfeifer said they had a lot of support from family and friends after getting diagnosed with breast cancer and throughout their treatment. Pfiefer was diagnosed in 2004 at the age of 41 and Willman in 2006 when she was 38.

“As I was going through my treatment, I had so many people reach out to me and my family to help. They said, ‘Your job is to get better. We just want you to focus on that.’ I had to let go and let people help me. That’s a big thing for a mom,” said Pfeifer, who has six children.

Willman had three young children at home when she learned she had breast cancer. She recalls the difficulties of having to be separated from them when receiving treatment.

“Going through it was hell,” she said. “I can’t think of another word for it. You feel terrible and you can’t be there for your kids. Your blood levels are low because of the chemo and you can’t be around your kids. That was the hardest part, I think, for a week or two you had to be in seclusion.”

Despite the hardships — and there were many that included the times that they hit rock bottom emotionally — the two took their experiences and used them to assist others who have been diagnosed with cancer.

They know the disease is prevalent, and this month highlights one type cancer in particular. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Pfeifer said each year when the calendar flips to October and the latter part of the month comes around, she remembers how it felt to receiver her diagnosis. Even though it has been 14 years ago, it is still present in her mind no matter how much time has passed.

“When that time of the year rolls around you get a little emotional. The memories come back,” she said.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women. Men can also get the disease. In 2015 more than 240,000 new cases of female breast cancer were reported, and 41,000 women died from it in the United States, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

GRACE Cancer Foundation isn’t limited to just helping families dealing with breast cancer. It does hold one of its annual fundraisers this time of year, though. That is Aces for GRACE, a partnership with local high school volleyball teams that raises funds for two scholarships that are given to area high school seniors directly impacted by a cancer diagnosis. The money is raised by a local business donating $25 for every ace served.

The foundation is also now able to submit grants directly to Project Pink’d in Omaha, a nonprofit that helps people going through breast cancer. Grant requests can be submitted to help ease some of the financial burdens faced by those families, Koch said.

GRACE assists those who live within 40 miles from Grand Island or are being treated at the Grand Island Cancer Treatment Center.

Without her diagnosis and Pfeifer’s, Willman believes they wouldn’t have formed the foundation. The two knew each other casually through a card club, but their friendship grew sharing their battles with cancer and supporting each other.

“We think God gave us cancer for a reason, and I think it was to do this,” Willman said. “I think he knew we’d take it and do something with it and help other people. I was brought up, and I know Julie was too, to leave a world a better place than when you came into it and leave your community better than when you came into it. If we’ve helped one person, all the blood sweat and tears we put into it is worth it.”

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Information from: The Grand Island Independent, http://www.theindependent.com

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