Breast Friends: How One Organization is Connecting Those Affected By Reproductive or Breast Cancers

October 20, 2020
Beth Fand Incollingo

CURE, 2020 Breast Cancer Special Issue ,

A group extends a hand to those affected by breast or reproductive cancers, especially younger previvors, patients and caregivers.

In the darkest times, people who can offer understanding and support provide the best balm for the spirit.

Five young women found that out when they were affected by breast cancer as patients, previvors or caregivers, and it spurred them to create an organization aimed at supporting others facing those situations. The Breasties (thebreasties.org) works to empower those affected by breast and reproductive cancers through connection with others, particularly those who are younger. Its distinctive name combines “breast” and “bestie.”

Launched as a nonprofit organization in 2018, the New York City-based group now has more than 46 chapters across the U.S., Canada and the U.K.

CURE® sat down with two of the group’s founders, Allie Brudner Brumel and Brianna “Bri” Majsiak, to learn more about the nonprofit organization and the support it offers.

Brumel, a speech pathologist and professor at New York University, is a survivor of breast cancer who carries the BRCA1 gene mutation, which causes an inherited predisposition to breast, ovarian and other cancers. Majsiak, a senior health producer at EverydayHealth, is not BRCA positive but has a strong family history of breast cancer and recently underwent a sensation-preserving preventive bilateral mastectomy.

The group’s other founders are Paige More and Leslie Almiron, who is the associate finance director at the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance. More underwent a preventive bilateral mastectomy after discovering she carried the BRCA1 gene mutation. At age 23, Almiron received a diagnosis of breast cancer that later became metastatic. Jessica Bonilla, Brumel’s caregiver and best friend, is the group’s chief of wellness.

CURE®: Why did you feel The Breasties was needed?

Brumel: I received a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer in January 2017, and during treatment, I felt like I was the only young person going through this. I was 28 at the time, and I struggled to find anybody in my age group with a similar situation until I turned to social media, and that was where I connected with Paige, who connected me with Bri.

It was the first time where I felt like “Wow, there are other people who get it.” It sounds selfish, but we created The Breasties because it was something we so desperately needed. We were looking for a place where we felt like we belonged and felt supported.

We decided to put together small get-togethers, like workout classes and potluck dinners, and then a retreat where we went skiing in the Pocono Mountains, just to do something fun and take our minds off everything we’d been through. We applied for our nonprofit status in February 2018.

Majsiak: I met Paige at a support group meeting of a nonprofit for women at high risk of breast cancer. Paige was a few weeks out from her preventive mastectomy. We realized that there were only a few of us on the younger side and making preventive decisions, and the environment didn’t seem very welcoming to young women. We realized there had to be more for us. Paige started sharing her story on social media and bringing together women in the New York area, and that’s how we all came together.

You state on your website that the group supports survivors, previvors, warriors, thrivers, carevivors and supporters. Can you please discuss this mission?

Brumel: We all have different stories. I’m a survivor, Bri and Paige are on the preventive side, and Jess is a caregiver. All of us have been affected by cancer in different ways, but there’s this connection between us. All of us want the same thing: We want to find a place where we feel supported and seen and motivated and empowered, because it’s hard going through any sort of cancer diagnosis or having a loved one affected or losing a loved one or finding out you’re at high risk.

On retreat, it’s been so magical to see the connections happen from provider to survivor and thriver to caregiver. We’re all about inclusivity, so we say that anyone who feels aligned with our mission and feels like a Breastie is a Breastie. We don’t want anyone to feel alone.

Please describe the kinds of events The Breasties holds.

Majsiak: The retreats, which are free and funded by our annual October gala, are typically two nights and three days, over a weekend. About 350 women have attended so far. They’re a mix of bonding and shared storytime so that people can get to know each other, as well as a variety of events, like skiing, snowboarding, whitewater rafting and hiking.

We always like to incorporate something fun, because it’s so hard after going through chemo or surgery — you feel like you can’t get back to your old self, that your body is only capable of harming you. We like to show everyone that your body is capable of so much more than just getting sick. Your bodies are strong; your bodies are resilient.

Our first year, we had five retreats, and we still had hundreds of women reaching out; we could accommodate only about a fourth of them. We thought, “What can we do to bring as many people together as we can?” We realized that would be a camp, kind of like a retreat on steroids. So, we put together a camp last summer and had 500 people come together for the weekend. That was a paid, at-cost event.

This year, due to COVID-19, camp was a virtual event, and we still had over 450 people enroll. We had live events happening throughout the weekend online. It wasn’t the same, but it still was a really nice way to bring the community together during these very strange times.

How can someone become an ambassador and lead a group of Breasties in their own community?

Majsiak: Our retreat in March was actually our first ambassador training retreat. We had over 60 women come to that weekend to learn how to host a meetup and raise funds at the local level. We have an ambassador handbook that we share with anybody who’s interested. Things look a little bit different now with everything being virtual, but typically, the requirement is that they do one meetup a month. We would share the event and try to help them find people in their community to attend. Then, after about four of those events, they would take a swing at being an official ambassador.

Together, you and the other co-founders have created Q: a large community. What has this community meant to each of you?

Brumel: We created this organization because we needed it. When we started, it was not even a year out from my diagnosis. When you’re going through active treatment, it’s like fight mode, and there’s not a lot of time or mental capacity to process it. I never fully processed that I had cancer and it was scary, and that was taking a huge hit on my mental health. With the Breasties, I was meeting amazing people, and the retreats, although we were leading them, became a source of healing for me. They let me process everything I had gone through, grieve for my past self and body, and just connect with incredible, strong, beautiful people that I wouldn’t have been able to meet otherwise.

It’s amazing to do something every day that you really are passionate about. After a cancer diagnosis, going back to my job just didn’t feel the same. I felt like I had a bigger purpose and drive in me, and so it’s nice to be able to fuel that energy and give it to something that’s bigger than me.

Majsiak: It’s been life-changing. It’s been a process of us healing as we’re creating community and space for others, and it’s been the most beautiful blessing. I healed so much of my grief, like losing my mom (to cancer), through this community. I never thought I’d meet someone who’d say, “Hey, I know that experience.” Some of my closest connections have been with mothers who are survivors and have a constant fear of not being there for their children, and that’s a connection I never would have expected to make.

Having very recently gone through surgery and navigated preventive decisions, I would not have known what exists if it wasn’t for this community. I’m constantly learning and engaging with people. It’s been so surreal to go through the experience and feel the support that we’re building.

What kind of feedback have you received from people who have come to The Breasties for support?

Brumel: So many people have mentioned how life-changing it was, because they got invaluable resources or met their new person, their best friend, through this organization. I remember walking through the campus at Camp Breasties last year and seeing a girl sitting on the bench by herself, on the phone. I was eavesdropping because I wanted to make sure she was OK, and I heard her say, “Mom, you don’t understand — there are 500 (people like me) here,” which I thought was just so special.

What else should people know?

Majsiak: Right now, we’re doing a lot of virtual support. We want everyone to know that even though the world is shut down, support is still out there. We like to say that the community’s not canceled. We have dozens of virtual events each month around all different topics, and there is something for everyone.

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