By Julie Washburn Souza
In 1983, Janet Beebe had no idea that her life was about to be impacted by breast cancer. At just 33 years old, Janet was a Peachtree City wife and mother with three young sons. She had just given birth to her youngest child, Jimmy, and as she settled in with her newborn, she was completely unaware that her life was in danger.
Janet decided to breastfeed her new baby, but after six months, she began having trouble with her milk supply. After examining her breasts, she found a small lump. Her doctor told her it was probably a clogged milk duct. Janet was instructed to put heat on it, but the lump remained. Even though Janet had no family history of cancer of any kind, she was concerned. All her instincts told her something was seriously wrong.
Janet had a mammogram which showed there was no tumor in her breast. Again, she was told she was fine, and not to worry, but Janet couldn’t shake the feeling that she might have cancer. She found a surgeon who advised doing a biopsy of the lump to test for cancer. Janet had the surgery to find that her suspicions were correct. She had breast cancer which had already spread to her lymph nodes.
“I was devastated, but I had already decided in my mind even before the test, that I had breast cancer,” Janet says.
At the time, it was extremely unusual for women as young as Janet to get breast cancer, which may have been why Janet’s concerns were downplayed at first.
With no family in Georgia, Janet felt very alone as she had a lumpectomy and underwent six weeks of radiation therapy. In 1983 there were no cancer doctors or treatment centers in the area, which forced Janet to drive to downtown Atlanta every single day for her treatment.
Most young mothers never doubt that they will live to raise their children, but Janet was left wondering who would be a mother to her three young boys if she lost her battle with cancer.
“I spent a lot of time praying,” Janet remembers. “I told God that if he would get me through this and keep me here for my children, I would dedicate my life to helping other women struggling with the same terrible disease.”
While Janet was recovering in the hospital, Vicki Castleberry, founder of a breast cancer patient support organization called Bosom Buddies, came to visit her. Vicki told her to get well as quickly as she could, because she had work to do. Vicki would later become Janet’s long-time friend and mentor.
“I still remember Vicki telling me, ‘Don’t lay here in gloom. Get well. We need you out there.’ I held on to that. I decided it was going to be my way to get through everything.”
As soon as she had recovered, Janet began volunteering for the American Cancer Society as a coordinator for the “Reach to Recovery” program in which volunteers visit patients in hospitals and provide support to patients during their recoveries. She worked at the volunteer job for 20 years. At the same time, she also volunteered as a facilitator for Bosom Buddies of Georgia, and held a monthly support group for breast cancer patients in her community.
For 23 years, Janet helped train other facilitators in the state who wanted to start their own monthly support groups for women struggling with breast cancer.
In 2004, Janet created a program called “The Hope Line,” a telephone number breast cancer patients could call for advice and continuous phone support during their treatment. In 2007, she began a non-denominational “Pink Prayer Line” for patients. Volunteer groups from local churches receive the requests, pray daily for the patients and their families and send cards out to the breast cancer patients letting them know they are in their prayers.
Four years after her lumpectomy and radiation, Janet’s cancer came back. She had a mastectomy then, and has become a 25 year survivor of breast cancer.
Today, Janet is proud of being a survivor. She wears pink wherever she goes, and uses her success story to raise awareness about breast cancer and to offer hope to other women who have been diagnosed with the disease.
“The reason I do this is because I get a lot out of it myself,” Janet said. “When I talk to newly diagnosed patients, I tell them, ‘Don’t count the days. Make the days count.’ Helping others going through the same thing is very healing.”
After volunteering for many years through other organizations, Janet decided to form her own non-profit organization to help breast cancer patients. In 2006, Janet developed “The Breast Cancer Survivors’ Network, Inc.” She works unpaid as the director and president of the group that helps women in Fayette County and throughout the state. Janet started the organization out of her home, and now runs the group from an office in Peachtree City.
Running the organization has become Janet’s life’s work. In addition to keeping regular office hours during the week, Janet works early morning and late evening hours answering phone calls and responding to emails from patients. It has become a round-the-clock effort for Janet.
Breast Cancer Survivors’ Network keeps a gift closet with donated breast cancer supplies like turbans, caps, and wigs for patients who are losing their hair. The closet is also stocked with bras, prosthetics, pressure pillows and drain bags for patients to use after surgery. All of the supplies are offered to breast cancer patients free of charge.
One service Breast Cancer Survivors’ Network offers is to help women in need get free or low-cost mammograms. The organization also provides financial assistance to breast cancer patients with mounting health care bills.
Janet has trained about 150 volunteers in communities throughout Georgia who are now operating support groups in their communities as well. The organization stocks nine gift closets in other areas to serve women all over Georgia.
All of the items in the gift closets are donated by companies, organizations, individuals, and civic groups who are interested in helping breast cancer patients.
“It always amazes me that there are so many generous people out there who want to help,” Janet said.
Local Girl Scouts volunteer on a regular basis to wash the wigs and prepare them for use, and women from churches knit and crochet the many beautiful caps in the closet. A group of girls from Fayette County High School is currently making Christmas balls for the organization to sell for a fundraiser.
Janet’s organization goes to health fairs and high schools to raise awareness about breast cancer and to encourage self breast exams and early detection. Janet believes she is alive today because her breast cancer was detected early, and she strongly believes in the importance of self breast exams. She visits high schools and college health classes to hand out guides to self-breast exams and to make young girls aware that breast cancer is not just an older woman’s disease.
“Early detection and treatment saves lives,” Janet said. “If you find it early, you’re much more likely to live.”
Over her many years of volunteer work, Janet has helped more than 8,000 women struggling with breast cancer. It has been rewarding, but often emotionally draining work, as she has watched many friends die from the disease.
“Not everybody with breast cancer lives,” Janet said. “I go to more funerals than most people.”
But Janet concentrates on the triumphs rather than the tragedies. Often, she says, just when things seem the darkest, something happens to remind her of all the good things she is accomplishing.
Recently, Janet got a call on her cell phone after she had left the office for the day. Two ladies from Peru were at the office hoping to get prosthesis. Janet drove back to meet them. When Janet showed them the gift closet and offered to fit the lady who survived breast cancer with a prosthesis and new bra, both women started crying. They couldn’t believe that all of the items in the closet were available for free. For years after her mastectomy the woman in need had gone without a prosthetic. Janet was shocked to find the woman had been wearing carefully sewn bags of bird seed in the lining of her bra. After hugs and tears from everyone, the ladies left and later vowed to start a support organization in their country.
There have even been times when Janet feels she has helped save a life. She has helped support and encourage some newly diagnosed women who have been very depressed and in at least one case, contemplating suicide.
“Being diagnosed is overwhelming, emotional, and upsetting. I tell everyone to just take it one day at a time. Once they start treatment, it is very hard. We give a lot of support to patients going through treatment,” Janet said.
Janet now has a volunteer therapist, who is also a breast cancer survivor, on call to talk with patients when needed.
One of the most important things Breast Cancer Survivors’ Network does, Janet says, is to provide hope and support to breast cancer patients. The organization’s Hope Line is a way for patients to get help, advice, and encouragement at any time – days, nights, or weekends.
For her courage, strength and dedication, Janet has received awards from the Fayette County United Way and the Metropolitan United Way. The Fayette County United Way named her as volunteer of the year in 1992, and the Metropolitan Atlanta United Way awarded her their certificate of appreciation for outstanding leadership and dedication in 1993. She has also received volunteer of the year awards from the American Cancer Society, where she has been a long-time volunteer.
While Janet is busy running her own non-profit, she continues to volunteer for other cancer organizations like the American Cancer Society and Chemoflage. For the past six years, she has volunteered as a crew member for the Atlanta Two-Day walk for breast cancer handing out water bottles and encouraging the 1,000 walkers as they pass through her tent on the path. Each year she continues to participate in the Relay for Life, Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure, and Making Strides For Breast Cancer.
“Getting with other survivors really lifts you up and gives you the strength and courage to carry on,” Janet said.
Janet has been featured in medical oncology magazines, newspapers, and recently talked live on the radio about breast cancer. She has also appeared on television news shows to talk about the disease.
Janet has discussed breast cancer issues with Governor Sonny Perdue and communicated with Elizabeth Edwards concerning her breast cancer. Everywhere she goes to speak, Janet always tries to educate people on the signs of breast cancer and the importance of early detection.
Janet’s goal for the future is to be able to provide transportation for women who have no way to get to their medical appointments.
“This is a horrible, devastating disease, but my goal is to help everyone become survivors,” Janet said.
Janet has started printing tee-shirts for the organization that symbolize her fighting spirit. They are printed with the saying “Fight Like a Girl.” Her son Michael, a graphic artist, designed the image on the shirt – a pair of boxing gloves. The tee-shirts sell for $20 and have been a very popular fundraiser for the non-profit organization.
The network is currently gearing up for their annual Candlelight Tea, which is scheduled for Saturday, November 22 at 4 p.m. at The Jasmine Tea Room in Sharpsburg. The event is a time for survivors and supporters to get together to celebrate their survival and to remember their friends and loved ones who have passed away. Raffles, entertainment, speakers, and auctions will be included in the event.
Janet sends out a monthly newsletter to organization members that sums up much of her philosophy about getting better. She includes a section at the end of each newsletter called “Time to Laugh,” in which she lists a collection of jokes. Many tell her it is their favorite part of the newsletter.
“We need to laugh,” Janet said. “I think it is very important. I’ve held onto my sense of humor through all of this, and I still believe laughter is a great form of therapy.”
If anyone is interested in volunteering or needs breast cancer help or services, please call Janet at the Breast Cancer Survivors’ Network office at 770-487-4396, or visit the website: www.bcsurvivorsnetwork.org