Diagnosed in 2004 with breast cancer, Sue Weldon began her journey searching for therapies that would complement the medical treatments she was receiving like acupuncture, massage and counseling. In 2009, she founded a nonprofit organization called Unite for HER, Helping to Empower and Restore by funding and delivering complementary therapies to support the physical and emotional needs of women with breast cancer during treatment and beyond in the Philadelphia, PA region.
“We fill a much-needed gap in the medical community, healing our women through to recovery, or the best quality of life. We now treat over 1000 women a year”.
Sue, can you please tell us about your cancer experience and how you discovered your breast cancer?
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 39, it was my kids I thought of first. I wanted to be there to raise them, to see them grow up, and to be strong for them. As I went through surgery and chemotherapy I watched the pounds I didn’t have fall away, lost my hair, my energy, and the color in my face.
The conventional treatments that rid the body of cancer — surgery, chemotherapy, radiation — can bring along a host of mental and physical side-effects, including nausea, headaches, profound fatigue, neuropathy, muscle and joint pain, anxiety and depression. These traumatic symptoms can be debilitating during treatment, and last months or even years after treatment is complete.
Adding to all of these challenges is the psychological pain of losing a breast or breasts. This change in the body forces menopause in younger women, and women of all ages experience changes in body image, sexuality, and sexual intimacy, adding even more stress to a very difficult situation.
When my treatments were complete, I was told that I was cancer-free. Despite this wonderful news, I hardly recognized the woman I saw in the mirror, a shell of my former vibrant self. Determined to regain some control of my health, I discovered that an abundance of research had shown that integrating complementary therapy with mainstream medicine could significantly improve patient well-being during treatment and beyond.
I began incorporating acupuncture, massage, yoga, exercise, and nutrition into my recovery plan, and experienced significant reduction in pain, an increase in my energy, and improvement in my overall wellness. I learned that the astounding benefits of complementary therapies are widely accepted within the medical community, but since the treatments generally are not covered by insurance, most patients do not have access to or even know about them.
I recognized that very few breast cancer patients in active treatment and/or recovery have both the time and the energy to do the research and the financial means to commit to the treatments. Fueled by the powerful impact that complementary therapies had on me, in 2009, I founded Unite for HER (Helping to Empower and Restore) to bridge this gap between the medical and wellness communities and bring complementary therapies to all breast cancer patients, regardless of income. We fill a much-needed gap in the medical community, healing our women through to recovery, or the best quality of life. We now treat over 1000 women a year.
What is your long-term strategy for Unite For HER?
At the core of UFH’s mission is the Wellness Program, a unique partnership with local hospitals through which breast cancer patients are educated about the healing benefits of complementary therapies and then given the opportunity to experience the therapies they choose all at no cost.
UFH’s Wellness Program is the first and only program in the Philadelphia Area to provide free education and access to complementary therapies to breast cancer patients, and through it thousands of women have been able to experience tremendous relief and healing. In just over seven years, what started as a small program at Paoli Hospital, has grown to a partnership with 20 hospitals that has served more than 3,000 breast cancer patients in the Philadelphia region. We are committed to maximizing both our reach and our impact across the many different communities of need here in the Philadelphia region. Since our program is so unique, we know that there are other areas in need of our services, and are exploring ways to continuing to grow.
How else do you help women and the community?
We serve by being pro active and preventative. We give our women control in a disease they had no control in by giving them education on how to we can fuel our bodies, mentally and physically, through the power of REAL food and the products we use. Unite for HER is further committed to educating the community about the importance of healthy lifestyle choices in the prevention of disease and the promotion of wellness. Our Students Unite for HER program gives local students the opportunity to host “pink” games at their school, and in exchange we offer the school educational materials, a presentation about nutrition, and a grant back to someone in their school community who has been affected by breast cancer. This collaboration with private and public schools has involved more than 6,000 students in Chester County middle and high school, and continues to grow into the surrounding counties. UFH reaches more than 20,000 people each year through speaking engagements, awareness events, and our signature event, the Pink Invitational gymnastics meet. We maintain a vibrant website and utilize social media to provide resources for breast cancer patients and education for all the community. Unite for HER also provides many volunteer opportunities: in 2016, more than 850 volunteers contributed over 11,000 volunteer hours.
In the bigger picture, what else would you like to do to reach more people and make a bigger difference?
I would love for every woman going through breast cancer to have access to complementary care, regardless of where she lives, and regardless of her income. I envision a future where complementary therapies will be integrated with the standard of care, where insurance companies recognize the critical role that complementary therapies play in the treatment of breast and all cancers so that all patients can experience more complete wellness. As more and more medical practitioners and patients in our community are exposed to our Wellness Program and see the impact of our work, the demand for insurance coverage of complementary care will grow. Unite for HER exists to bridge the gap between the medical and wellness communities, but it is my hope that in the future that gap will be closed.
UFH provides hope, information, inspiration, and support to breast cancer patients at the Wellness Day itself, and to empower our women to utilize complementary therapies to help restore their health. Many arrive at their Wellness Day somewhat reluctantly—tired, overwhelmed, some not quite ready to label themselves breast cancer patients—like Amy, mother to two small children, a young woman herself. When her radiologist recommended her to a Wellness Day, Amy first said no: “I’m doing fine, I’m adjusting fine. The last thing I need is to hear about other women’s heartbreak.” Amy was convinced to participate, and halfway through the day the tears she had been holding in since her diagnosis finally flowed. Amy tells it best:
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