Nonprofit helps women with breast and gynecological cancers pay bills

BEAUTIFUL BRAS: Employees from Asheville Cotton Co. show off their Bra La La creations, which they designed and created to raise money for The Hope Chest for Women during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. Shop customers may cast one free vote for their favorite bra, and then may purchase an unlimited amount of additional paid votes. All proceeds from the contest will support the nonprofit's work. Photo courtesy of Asheville Cotton Co.

Life looked good as Jenna Jaffe turned 50 this year. She had endured a lumpectomy and beaten back cancer for five years. She had a joyful relationship with her life partner and was enjoying her three sons. Jaffe teaches English as a second language at A-B Tech, and two presentation proposals had been accepted for an upcoming conference.

Then came the news that cast a different light on her happiness.

“The cancer came back,” Jaffe says. “I had a mastectomy this July, and I’ll be undergoing breast reconstruction and permanent implant in November.”

Jaffe, a certified peer support specialist, felt determined to fight back. She has been a voice teacher for 26 years, specializing in coaching transgender people who want to change their voice pitch.

“Cancer kicked my butt into realizing how incredible life really is,” Jaffe says. “We could die tomorrow, any of us, hit by a bus or struck by lightning, and having cancer forced me to realize how much I really want to live.”

Even with three jobs and a strong network of family and friends, Jaffe didn’t make enough to pay for the expenses of her cancer treatment and sustain her life expenses, too. Treatments cut into her work time, and the bills started to stack up. In a support group for breast cancer survivors called The Young and the Breast-less, she heard about The Hope Chest for Women.

“I would have lost my car if they hadn’t helped me,” Jaffe said. “I used to have a Prius, but I couldn’t afford the battery. I have a VW Jetta now, and the Hope Chest paid for my car payments twice.”

Keeping the home fires burning

The Hope Chest for Women connects those struggling with breast and gynecological cancer to community resources. The nonprofit provides funds for vitamins, medications, utility payments, specialized medical supplies, co-pays and other practical expenses.

“Last year alone, we kept six women from going homeless,” says Terri Bowman, executive director. “We helped 109 women pay 263 bills, totaling more than $67,000.”

The Hope Chest got its start in 2003 when nurses and physicians realized that patients had to choose between cancer treatments and living expenses. Women often couldn’t find transportation to their appointments, and some were losing jobs and homes. Unable to make co-payments on their accounts, some women skipped treatments, Bowman says.

Today, any woman who has been diagnosed with breast, cervical, endometrial, ovarian, uterine, vaginal or vulvar cancer can get help from the Hope Chest, if they’re living or being treated in one of the 22 counties of Western North Carolina and need financial assistance.

“We take the calls, talk to women, and we pay for their rent, their mortgage, their electric bills, their gas cards so they can get to appointments,” Bowman says. “One client had to drive back and forth to Greenville, S.C., every day for 21 days straight for her treatments. We can help with that. Most of the women on our board are cancer survivors or family members of cancer survivors, so it’s very close to our hearts.”

Taking its toll

Bowman’s sister died of cancer only six months after her diagnosis, and her death galvanized Bowman to encourage cancer screening, mammograms and Pap smears.

“Early detection can save lives,” Bowman says.  “Even so, the toll cancer takes affects not only health and emotions, but all the practical aspects of life. Some women find their partners leaving them when they get that diagnosis.”

After becoming cancer-free, more than one in three cancer survivors remain in debt from treatment, according to a 2017 study by The Pink Fund. Working women with insurance plans often fare the worst, when their insurance plans refuse coverage of needed treatments, Bowman says. Nearly half of the women in the study used up their retirement accounts, and 26 percent ran out of money and had to use credit cards to pay for treatments. Almost one-quarter of the women went completely broke.

“It’s tough,” Bowman says. “It really is.”

Art of living

Jaffe still has to battle her cancer, but thanks to the Hope Chest, she doesn’t have to worry about losing her home or her car in the process. The organization also connected her to CancerCare, a national program that provides free support services and information to help people manage the emotional, practical and financial challenges of cancer. 

Now Jaffe has reclaimed her joy in life. She started work on her first solo art show of collage, multimedia and 3D works on the feminine body, which will be displayed at the Epione Clinic for Integrated Healing on Zillicoa Street the first weekend in April. She also writes songs with titles that include “Celebrate the Love,” “The Four Agreements” and “The Road to Love.”

“I believe it will help people, to create art that evokes a strong emotional response,” Jaffe says.  

She has been working on songs for her first CD, too. On Sunday, Nov. 4, Jaffe will present a song at Jubilee! on Wall Street.

“The song I will perform at Jubilee! is about being on the edge of hopelessness and going over that cliff into hope,” Jaffe says. “The Hope Chest not only gave me financial support but also gave me connections to other women and gave me real hope.”  

Cancer often isn’t the only challenge in a woman’s life. Jaffe has endured bipolar disorder for 40 years. 

“I’ve struggled with my demons for so long,” Jaffe says. “Cancer definitely impaled me, and it became the catalyst for me to have no excuses anymore to not create. I must create and share my art and get it out there where it can do some good for other people.”

Supporting the cause

Many local organizations support the Hope Chest through fundraisers. The Asheville Cotton Co., a quilting and sewing specialty retailer on Hendersonville Road, recently held a work party, inviting women to design bras for its Bra La La fundraiser.

“We’re hoping to raise a few hundred dollars the first year,” says Asheville Cotton Co.’s Robin Culbertson, who’s owned and operated the business for 21 years with her husband, Chip.  “Women get together here to quilt and share ideas, and one of my customers suggested supporting the Hope Chest. Everyone gets a free vote for favorite and beyond that, they can donate any amount of money as votes for any bra or bras. We have prizes for whoever raises the most money and whoever gets the most free votes.”

Other local business supporters of the Hope Chest during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October have included:

  • Enka Candler Fire & Rescue, which wrapped a firetruck in pink.
  • Wicked Weed Brewing, which donated a portion of every sale of Pink Ribbon Ale.
  • Sky Zone Asheville indoor trampoline park, which donated a portion of every sale of pink socks.
  • Asheville Chevrolet.
  • Harpe Laser & Wellness.
  • Harley-Davidson of Asheville, which held its sixth annual Breast Cancer Poker Run on Oct. 20.

The Hope Chest also presented the Here’s Hope Fashion Show and Luncheon fundraiser on Oct. 20.

“The more money we make, the more women we can help,” Bowman says.

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