Pilgrim senior aims to raise breast cancer awareness


"If we save at least one life by teaching breast self-exams, then it’s worth it,” said Caitlin Donnelly, 17, a senior in Pilgrim Senior High School, who for her senior project is holding an informational event about breast cancer awareness Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. in the front parking lot of the school during a home football game.

“You have to have early detection,” she said. “I want to teach that to people so if they get breast cancer, they know it right away and hopefully get cured. It’s a 90-percent survival rate right now with early detection.”

Also, she noted that one in six Rhode Islanders will develop breast cancer this year, while one in eight across the country will be diagnosed in 2012.

Breast cancer survivors, as well as representatives from the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation, will accompany Donnelly to the event. The Hope Bus, a pink RV that travels throughout the country and serves as a mobile wellness and resource center, will be there, too, as will Donnelly’s project mentor, Maureen DiPiero, who runs the bus.

As a team, Donnelly and the group will be providing guests with information about breast cancer, with a specific focus on the importance of breast self-exams and the fact that men can also develop breast cancer.

They will be passing out pamphlets and diagrams to teach people how to perform breast self-exams so they can start examining themselves at an early age. For a reference on a best method, visit gloriagemma.org and look under “Resources.”

“With Breast Cancer Awareness Month fast approaching [in October], this is the prime time for me to hold my event,” Donnelly said. “It makes me feel better knowing that I could possibly help someone and that’s my goal.”

Donnelly began working on the project in May, finding inspiration for the topic from her stepmother Carol Ann Donnelly, a two-time cancer survivor. Carol Ann works as the office manager for the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation, where Caitlin has been volunteering for years.

Carol Ann is thrilled that Caitlin is invested in raising awareness, especially amongst teenagers.

“I’m extremely proud of her and pleased that she’s taken such an interest because young women for some reason don’t think that they can get breast cancer,” said Carol Ann. “We just launched a new young survivors program and have a woman who was diagnosed when she was 22. People think it’s an old lady’s disease but it’s not. Young women need to be aware that they should be doing breast self-exams every single month starting in their teens.”

To further promote breast cancer awareness, as well as to educate her peers, Caitlin has been posting a daily fact on her Facebook page, posting statistics on the walls of the school, and working on getting on the morning announcements.

Additionally, she composed a survey that nearly 140 students filled out so far in order to get a gist of what they know – and don’t know – about the disease.

“Many didn’t know that men can develop breast cancer,” Caitlin said. “I was very, very shocked.”

A majority of students also thought that wearing an under wire bra to bed and having a family history of breast cancer means they will definitely develop breast cancer, which isn’t the case. They also thought household chemicals, as well as birth control or other contraceptives, cause breast cancer. Caitlin said while there is speculation that certain types of birth control lead to breast cancer, there is yet to be any substantial evidence.

And while having larger breasts may not directly cause breast cancer, it impacts the ability to detect a lump.

“It’s easier to find lumps in smaller breasts,” Caitlin said.

Caitlin also said that while most doctors advise woman over the age of 40 to undergo annual mammograms, younger women must be aware that they are at risk, too.

“My step-mom was diagnosed at 36 and it’s happening more and more with younger women than it was before,” she said.

For the project, Caitlin is responsible for writing a five- to eight-page research paper about breast cancer awareness and breast-self exams.

Further, she is responsible for making a presentation at the end of the school year, as well as complete 15 hours of fieldwork.

“I’ve already done 30,” she said. “If I’m not sleeping or working, I’m doing this. Whenever I get a free moment, I do research.”

For her fieldwork hours, Caitlin has been spending time with DiPiero on the bus. There, she gets the opportunity to chat with survivors, people who have recently been diagnosed, plus their loved ones.

“I get to talk to people, which is one of my favorite things in the whole wide world,” Caitlin said. “We don’t ask them to share but after meeting us, most people want to share. I love hearing peoples’ stories.”

She described a story in which an older man came aboard the bus with his granddaughter. While she was telling him about upcoming events, he blurted out, “My daughter has breast cancer. She lives in Florida and I don’t know what to do for her.”

“I started talking to him and said, ‘My step-mom had breast cancer twice and I know it’s a very hard thing. You don’t always know what to do,’” Caitlin said. “We connected and he gave me a big hug when he left.”

Caitlin, who was recently elected president of the Italian Club, and also a member of the Gay-Straight Alliance, is planning on becoming a wildlife biologist and will start taking classes at the Community College of Rhode Island after graduation.

For now, she’s looking forward to Friday.

“Hopefully, everyone will be wearing pink,” she said.

To learn more about the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation and the annual “Flames of Hope” event, at which the foundation will unveil its 2013 calendar, visit gloriagemma.org. The event will take place the weekend of Oct. 5 and 6.


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