Vickie Blevins deals every day with what she calls "the dirty little secret" about breast cancer.
It's difficult to find someone who doesn't have a pink ribbon in support of breast cancer survivors on something — a key chain, a T-shirt, a bumper sticker. But Blevins said the sea of pink promoting the importance of mammograms sometimes overshadows the needs of thousands of Kentuckians receiving treatment.
These women are in what Blevins, founder of the Kentucky Pink Connection, calls "the ditch" — between finding out they have the disease and completing treatment.
Between the first sign of a lump or a symptom and the end of treatment, they face a host of complicated and often overwhelming obstacles relating to breast cancer. Blevins' shoestring operation is helping 300 to 400 women at any given time and has served 3,000 across the state since she founded it in 2008.
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"That's the severe need that we have," she said.
Blevins was honored Monday by the Board of Health of the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department as a "Health Hero" for her work with the non-profit, but she said the everyday heroes in her life are the women she tries to help.
"Transportation, help with medicine, wigs, hats, mastectomy items," Blevins says, rattling off a short list of needs of Kentucky Pink Connection clients. The goal is to link women throughout the state with the resources available in their communities. They might be access to a specialist or a gas card to help cover the cost of traveling to chemotherapy treatments. Kentucky Pink Connection also has some money available for unmet needs — a tire, for example, when getting it would allow a woman to get to her doctor without other assistance.
The pitch Blevins gives to potential donors is this: We are local, we are part of the community, you can decide where you want to target your money and we will honor your wishes, and we can show you how we help.
In announcing the award, the health department cited Blevins' work in talking to women at health fairs, fund-raisers and doctors' offices, and her involvement in the creation of a grass-roots group working to create a mobile mammography van for Central and Eastern Kentucky. Blevins, though, said she thinks it's her one-to-one work that matters most.
"People are so relieved to have someone to talk to, knowing that someone cares," she said.
Zelda Amburgey of Hindman agreed.
"It's just so refreshing to talk to someone who actually listens to your concerns and tries so very hard to help," said Amburgey, who has used Kentucky Pink Connection to obtain help with information and equipment to treat her lymphedema. (Lymphedema is a swelling caused by the lack of lymph nodes and is a common side effect of breast cancer surgery, Blevins said.)
Blevins sees the job of Kentucky Pink Connection — which consists of her, two part-time staffers and volunteers — as helping people navigate the complicated system of treatment.
The Lexington native said that as the oldest of seven children, she comes by these skills naturally. She helped wrangle her brother and sisters while her mother worked. "When you are getting the oatmeal on the table and getting people to school," she said, laughing, "you navigate."
She moved to Nicholasville as a child and graduated from Jessamine County High School. She married, had three children and went to back to school when her youngest entered the first grade. She eventually studied business at Midway College. In 1998, she and three friends decided to start a boutique to sell mastectomy supplies including bras, wigs, scarves and hats after a number of women they knew were diagnosed with the disease.
It was the stories she heard in the fitting room of that boutique, she said, that prompted her to start Kentucky Pink Connection. She said she was shocked and saddened by the number of women who felt alone and unsupported following the diagnosis. She was especially touched by the story of single mothers who were struggling to get better and to care for their children.
"A lot of them felt like they had no support," she said. (Sometimes, she said, it was true, because the husband or boyfriend left after the initial diagnosis.)
The profile of breast cancer has changed tremendously in the past decade, she said, due to the efforts of Susan G. Komen for the Cure and other education groups. (Komen is a financial supporter of Kentucky Pink Connection.)
However, the many deeply ingrained fears continue, she said. Many women feel shame in the diagnosis, fear that losing their breasts will mean losing their husband, or are afraid of what people might think if they find out they have cancer. Also, she said, women in some parts of Eastern Kentucky are afraid that if their cancer is known in the community, it will make them a target for addicts seeking painkillers. She knows of one woman whose mobile home was ransacked by addicts looking for pills while she was at chemotherapy.
Blevins said the average annual income of the women she serves is about $25,000, but she increasingly sees middle-class women who have always had insurance and steady incomes who find themselves thrown into crisis by the double whammy of a cancer diagnosis and the loss of a job.
"These women have never had to ask for help and find themselves needing it for the first time," she said.
At 59, Blevins said, retirement is in sight but not in the works. She might slow down a bit to spend time with her children and eight grandchildren. But she said she can't imagine leaving behind the cause that's so close to her heart.
If you work for a non-profit, she said, "you can never really separate yourself."