And Breast Friends has added teal to its color scheme to represent gynecological cancers

BARBARA SHERMAN - Sharing stories and more than a few laughs at Breast Friends during a visit are (from left) Dee Schiavone, Breast Friends' Becky Olson, Elaine Gelfand, Lou Jean DeVito, Pat Boyd, Carlene Simmering and Breast Friends' Sharon Henifin.The Pink Ladies are adding teal to their color scheme.

Becky Olson and Sharon Henifin co-founded Breast Friends in 2000 in Tigard, turning it into a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization in 2001 with the mission of “helping women survive the trauma of breast cancer one friend at a time.”

On Oct. 29 several members of the King City Ceramics Club visited the offices to learn about the organization and donate a number of pink ceramic pieces to be given to women fighting breast cancer.

Olson and Henifin became acquainted in 1991 as co-workers in Portland, and in 1993, Henifin was the first in their circle of friends to be diagnosed with breast cancer with Olson getting the same diagnosis in 1996.

During the next few years, they realized that their well-intentioned friends did not know what to say or do to help them, and they started Breast Friends to teach friends and family members how to offer appropriate help.

Olson was diagnosed again in 2004 and 2009, and the organization expanded to include support groups and inspiration as well as practical advice and products to help women going through treatment.

More recently, they added the color teal to symbolize their expansion to include ovarian and other gynecological uterine cancers.

Meanwhile, several members of the King City Ceramics Club had been diagnosed with breast cancer but had not heard of Breast Friends, even though it was only a couple miles away on Pacific Highway.

One of them was Carlene Simmering, who said, “Last June or July, I was told the cancer was gone, and I wanted to commemorate the occasion. Pat Boyd in the club also is a survivor, and she paints china and porcelain. That gave me the idea of painting porcelain cups pink, and I also thought we could do ceramic cups,

“I asked the members if they wanted to paint some pieces pink. We meet twice a week, and our kids are tired of getting our stuff. We’ve run out of people to give it to, so I thought it would be nice to give to other people. We found the cups online, and then some in the group started painting vases and plates with the word ‘Survivor’ on them. We worked on them for a month.

“We were thinking they could be given to women in the hospital. When I called the American Cancer Society, the lady I talked to said, ‘Great idea,’ but she never called back. Someone mentioned Breast Friends, and Dee (Schiavone) talked to them, and they said they would be glad to accept them.”

BARBARA SHERMAN - Sharon Henifin (right) of Breast Friends describes to Carlene Simmering and others the history of this bra-themed quilt.So five members of the ceramics club drove to Breast Friends in late October, set up a display of all the pink pieces they had created and then got a tour. Breast Friends has expanded from one room to a 2,000-square-foot suite consisting of several rooms, and with no room for their office, Olson and Henifin are situated across the hall.

Two walls of “Bald is beautiful” portraits surround a large conference table, where the group sat down to chat. Professionally taken photos of dozens of survivors with their makeup done professionally smile beautifully and confidently as well as proud to show off their bald heads.

“When you lose your hair, that is probably the least beautiful you have ever felt,” Henifin said. “But these photos show the opposite – that you can be bald and beautiful.”

She and Olson told the story of what happened after Henifin was diagnosed when they were co-workers.

“When she was first diagnosed, I had no idea what to do except to say, ‘Let me know if there is anything I can do,’” Olson said. “I had no idea she was sitting at home and needed help.”

Henifin, who went on to become a certified life coach, described what she was going through, saying, “Everyone I knew who had gone through it had died. As women, we are tough and are expected to figure it out, but this knocks you to your knees.”

They had no funding to even start the organization until they got invited to speak in Scappoose and earned $50 each.

“We each wrote a check for $50 and opened a bank account with $100,” Olson said. “We moved into this building in a 12-by-13-square-foot room where the rent was $150 a month, and we decided that we would split the unpaid rent every month if we didn’t raise enough to pay it, and we’ve never had to.

“When you do the right things for the right reasons, doors open. We have never had to dip into our personal savings.”

In 2004, Breast Friends received its first grant from Susan G. Komen for the Cure and have received some level of funding from Komen every year since, plus the organization applies for other grants and holds three major fundraisers each year

Still, what the organization really comes down to is the personal stories and helping women one at a time, through good times and bad. “Cancer is not funny, but there are funny moments,” Henifin said. “We try to lighten it up when we can.”

According to Henifin, 430 women contacted Breast Friends in 2014, and unfortunately, not every story has a happy ending. “We lost two women last week,” she said.

Olson explained, “Support means different things to different people. Some get their questions answered and don’t come back, while others come in and stay to talk and to get a hug. We have six support groups in Vancouver, Salem, Northeast Portland, Gladstone, Tigard and Beaverton-Aloha.”

Henifin added, “We offer emotional support and talk them off the ceiling if necessary. I had a woman walk up to me at an event and say, ‘You’ve been calling me, and I never called back, but I want you to know how much those calls meant to me.’ Now she’s active in the organization.

“Sometimes we don’t meet women until later in the process. We tell them about the side effects of treatment and tell them, ‘We will get through this.’ The survivorship piece is so important, and sometimes it doesn’t hit them until after treatment. We hang on to our women, and the ones who really hang around become volunteers.”

To date, Breast Friends’ website has received more than 1 million visits, and in 2009, it launched its first affiliate in Florida and a second one in 2012 in Pennsylvania.

Olson and Henifin led the ceramics club group on a tour of the office, where bra-themed quilts and funny breast-related items decorate the walls; in addition, countless items are for sale or offered for free from notecards to hats, scarves and wings to prostheses to knitted ta-tas in sizes A, B and C.

Everyone is affected in some way by breast cancer, according to the website, which states, “One in eight women (in America) will be diagnosed, and the other seven will know her.”

And just maybe the ceramics club will be back with another donation.

“Maybe next year we will do pieces in teal for Breast Friends – it is a totally good cause,” Simmering said. “We kind of got burned out on pink.”

Breast Friends is located at 14050 S.W. Pacific Highway, Suite 201 (just past Gardener’s Choice); for more information, visit or call 503-598-8048.

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