When Nan Van Den Bergh was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer in 2003, she had no one to turn to, other than her close friends and former partners.
She hadn’t lived in Miami for long, her family lived in upstate New York and her nurses and surgeon made her feel uncomfortable about acknowledging she was a lesbian.
“Many times in my life when I disclosed my lesbian identity, people’s facial expressions changed and then my feelings get hurt and I get scared,” she said. “I was not about to come out in a group of very straight women and talk about my experience, not having my support system there.”
After realizing that others must have had similar experiences, she created an organization to help the lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LBT) community.
The now 66-year-old clinical professor in the School of Social Work at Florida International University founded ARROW — Area Resource and Referral Organization for Women — to provide education, support services and resources for women in the LBT community.
Van Den Bergh is one of several breast cancer survivors in South Florida who have started organizations to help others navigate breast cancer, which affects one in eight U.S. women, according to the American Cancer Society. (About 232,340 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in 2013, the society says.)
One group — The Beautiful Gate Cancer Support & Resource Center — provides support to black women affected by cancer. Another — The Women’s Breast Health Initiative Florida Affiliate — educates underserved women, particularly among the working class.
All three groups have received grants from the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s Miami/Fort Lauderdale affiliate, which will host its 18th annual Miami/Fort Lauderdale 5K race at Bayfront Park on Saturday. This year, the goal is to raise $1 million to fund research and local groups.
Breaking the silence
Pamela Burnett, who was diagnosed with Stage Zero breast cancer in 2002 (when cancer cells are still within the duct and haven’t spread), says that when she began helping others, she began to heal.
Burnett, a quit-smoking cessation counselor at the University of Miami, could not find people to talk to about her diagnosis, and quickly became depressed and scared. At one point, she was taking 16 pills a day.
“When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know anything about cancer,” Burnett said. “The family didn’t talk about cancer. They just came from that era. Everyone was silent. I allowed the doctors to make every decision for me. I always said, ‘OK. Oh, but I know better now.’ ”
In 2006, Burnett decided it was time to break the silence, and founded Beautiful Gate.
“A voice inside of me was saying, ‘Pam, you do it,’ ” said Burnett, now 52.
Two breast cancer support groups are hosted every month — one in Miami-Dade County every first Thursday of the month and one in Hallandale Beach every second Thursday of the month — where doctors, plastic surgeons and pathologists educate women about breast cancer.
The organization also provides women with transportation, financial assistance, art therapy and stress management sessions and holds workshops in public schools in underserved areas throughout the year.