TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Sharon Henifin and Becky Olson of Breast Friends in Tigard. The organization is slowly expanding across the country, helping thousands of women battling cancer each year. Becky Olson and Sharon Henifin know what it’s like to live with a cancer diagnosis.

They know the stress, the fear, the pain.

Both friends have beaten breast cancer and both have devoted more than a decade of their lives to making sure that women all over the country have someone to share those challenges.

The pair started their nonprofit, Breast Friends, in 2000, lending a helping hand to women in Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin and all across the country. The group teaches friends and family how to be there for their loved ones, and helps women through support groups and conversation. Breast Friends (503-598-8048) is located at just over 2 miles south of Beaverton at 14050 S.W. Pacific Hwy. in Tigard.TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Sharon Henifin and Becky Olson operate six support groups in the Portland-metro area, some meet for breakfast, others for a girls night out.

Women come to Breast Friends at every stage of their lives, Olson said. Some come when they are just diagnosed and some arrive while they are undergoing treatment. Many don’t find out about the organization until after they have entered remission.

“When you’re finished, your doctor says ‘All finished. We’ll see you in three months for a checkup’ and you think, ‘Well, shoot. What do I do now?’” Henifin said. “That safety net that you have had for months is yanked out.”

Breast cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer among women, with one in eight diagnosed sometime in their lives.

And those numbers are getting higher. It’s estimated that those numbers will grow by 50 percent by 2030.

Breast Friends offers programs for women with all types of cancers, including support groups and retreats for women who have finished their treatment.

“A lot of times, people don’t go to support groups when they are in treatment; it’s barely enough for them to keep their heads above water,” Henifin said. “But after, they often need to commiserate with other women who have gone through something like that.”

For Breast Friends, it’s all about helping women feel like themselves again.

“It’s about making sure we have a positive experience,” Henifin said. “What can we do to move forward?”

Breast Friends operates six support groups in the Portland-metro area, some meet for breakfast, others for a girls night out.

“We talk about books and movies and whatever else,” Olson said. “They build these wonderful friendships and can call each other when they have issues.”

When Olson helped found Breast Friends in 2000, she didn’t think she’d ever need to use her organization’s services.

First diagnosed in 1996, she relapsed in 2004 and again in 2009.

But Breast Friends was there for her.

It’s all about support, she said. Too often, women go through the experience alone. Often, friends don’t know how to show their support when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer.

“People say, ‘If there is anything that I can do, let me know,’” Olson said. “But then the friends back away — their friends said they would call, but that’s not the way that it works. We teach people how to offer that support. We’re helping patients from the other direction.”

Those are the people that Olson likes to work with; she calls that her “twinkle.”

“It’s about finding what makes you shine,” she said. “For me, I love to go out into the community and talk with civic groups about how to support loved ones and friends who are going through this, or who could go through this.”

The Tigard-based nonprofit has grown substantially since its earliest beginnings in 2000. What began as a small, two-woman operation has grown to a nationwide operation. Along with their Tigard headquarters, the organization now has affiliates in Pennsylvania and Florida.

But Olson said that there is still plenty of room to grow.

“We really want to be top of mind; we have so much to offer,” Olson said. “Often, they don’t know about us until they are through with treatment and hear about us.

“We’d love to partner with a nonprofit hospital that can streamline the process.”

Hospitals have the patients, Olson said. Breast Friends has the support structure.

Breast Friends works with the patients for as long as they need them, Henifin said. Sometimes that’s a few months, or as long as a few years.

“For a lot of metastatic patients, they may be in constant treatment for many years and need support through all of that,” she said.

Last year, Breast Friends helped 417 new patients — not counting its affiliates in Florida or Pennsylvania — and made 2,500 contacts with its new and old patients.

“Even if we’re just calling and saying that we’re thinking about them,” Olson said, “it matters to them.”

In a job that can sometimes be very sad, Olson said she can’t imagine doing anything else.

“Luckily, there is a lot more good than bad,” Olson said. “There are moments that just take your breath away.”

Henifin agreed.

“It’s what God put me on this Earth to do,” Henifin said. “We’re making a difference in these women's’ lives.”

For more information about Breast Friends, visit PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Becky Olson, left, and Sharon Henifin talk about the work Breast Friends provides, including direct support and working with families.

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