The buddy system: cancer benefit takes on new meaning for two best buds

Posted Aug. 01, 2011, at 1:30 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 02, 2011, at 8:14 p.m.
Jennifer Sewell (left) and Rori Knott (right).
Photo courtesy of Rori Knott
Jennifer Sewell (left) and Rori Knott (right).

BANGOR, Maine — Rori Knott has participated in the annual Beach to Beach Swim for Breast Cancer for nearly a decade. For many of those years, her friend and co-worker Jenny Sewell has been there to cheer her on.

This year, however, the annual fundraiser for the Caring Connections breast cancer support program has taken on added meaning for the two women, who work together at Community Health and Counseling Services in Bangor. Knott is a mental health therapist at the nonprofit agency and Sewell works in the finance department.

In May of last year, Sewell was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It was total fluke,” Sewell, 36, said during a recent interview in the living room of Knott’s Bangor home. Sewell, who lives in Holden, had sprained a chest muscle and scheduled a mammogram at the insistence of her physical therapist. The mammogram revealed the presence of the cancer.

The type of breast cancer Sewell has is called invasive ductal carcinoma. It can be difficult to detect and sometimes occurs with few or no apparent symptoms. In her case, the only red flag was some swelling on the side of her chest opposite the sprain injury.

Knott said her friend’s diagnosis was unexpected.

“I think we were all dumbfounded. She didn’t have some of the obvious risk factors,” she said. Common risk factors for breast cancer include family history, age, a personal history of breast cancer and unhealthy behaviors such as overusing alcohol and eating a poor diet.

Shortly after her diagnosis, Sewell joined the Caring Connections breast cancer support group for women 40 and younger, which she said currently has eight or nine members.

“It’s been one of my greatest supports during the last year,” Sewell said. Members meet regularly to talk about their experiences with breast cancer and to share coping strategies, she said. They also keep in touch through their Facebook page.

Though Sewall considers herself lucky that her cancer was detected early, she said the battle to overcome it has been difficult.

“It’s been a very hard year,” Sewell said of learning she has cancer, undergoing treatment and dealing with the side effects.

In addition to her Caring Connections group, she said, the support of her close-knit family and her circle of friends has been essential. Among other things, she said, they found dishes to cook for her when there wasn’t much she wanted to eat because of the nausea she experienced after chemotherapy. Her friends and loved ones also listened when she needed to talk, she said, and took turns accompanying her to the Lafayette Family Cancer Center in Brewer for chemotherapy sessions, which lasted from two to four hours.

While undergoing treatment, Sewell remained on the job at Community Health and Counseling Services. She said she is grateful for the support she received from her co-workers, who donated the 250 to 300 vacation hours she was able to draw on while she underwent treatment.

“It was good to work,” she said, adding that staying busy helped keep her mind off of her cancer and gave her life direction.

Knott said it wasn’t easy for Sewell to accept help. She is, after all, from good Yankee stock.

“We all were so eager to do something and Jenny is very self-sufficient. She’s very independent and she doesn’t like to think that people are doing things for her,” Knott said. “[But] it’s difficult when somebody is fighting a very serious illness and so she begrudgingly let us help.”

Since her diagnosis, Sewell has undergone two courses of chemotherapy, two lumpectomies and a course of radiation treatment. She completed her treatment in April.

“In May, I had a good, clean mammogram,” she said. To help prevent the cancer from returning, she must take the prescription drug Tamoxifen for the next five years. Sewell said if she continues to receive clean mammograms, her remission will be official.

Caring Connections is a collaborative program of Eastern Maine Medical Center and the Bangor Y. The program provides breast health education, screening, diagnostic and treatment services to uninsured or underinsured women in eastern Maine. The program also sponsors support groups for women with breast cancer.

Set this year for Sunday, Aug. 7, the annual Beach to Beach event is a swim of any distance up to two miles. It is held at Jenkins Beach on Green Lake in Dedham.

To get involved, participants register as individuals or form teams of six friends, family members or co-workers and collect pledges. Supporters also can donate directly to Caring Connections in honor of or in memory of someone who has been affected by breast cancer.

Knott said that the Beach to Beach fundraiser draws a spectrum of swimmers, young and old, male and female, including many breast cancer survivors and their supporters. Many survivors who don’t swim turn up to volunteer.

Sewell says she will be among this year’s volunteers.

To register for Beach to Beach, to donate directly to Caring Connections or for more information, visit www.beachtobeach.org.

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