Breanne Sterner on Monday made the first of what she hopes will be many cheerful visits in the coming years to Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
While the euphoria obviously had something to do with going to the facility as a nonpatient for the first time since completing chemotherapy, the joy had more to do with the purpose of her visit.
Sterner, the 21-year-old Youngstown native who successfully tried out for a professional cheer-dance team while undergoing treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma last spring, appeared at the complex with two friends and teammates to drop off more than 30 gift baskets and bags. They were distributed to cancer patients between the ages of 5 and 25.
The donation marked the start of the Buffalo Rapids' "Rush to Recovery," a charitable program in which members of the American Basketball Association's cheer-dance team, the Buffalo Rush, attempt to brighten up the day of patients with acts of kindness.
"It was nice to drop all of those baskets off, and hopefully it will make some children or young adults have a better day or put a smile on their face," said Sterner, who was accompanied by best friend Lori McGowan of North Tonawanda and Rush Cheer-Dance director Missy Altieri of Wheatfield. "I think that's what's really important (when) going through something like chemotherapy or dealing with cancer.
"We wanted to get it done right away and to be brought to Roswell. We wanted to get it done very early on in the season."
Rush to Recovery was the brainchild of Altieri, who was one of the first people to learn of Sterner's cancer diagnosis last November. Altieri and Sterner have known each other since Altieri coached the Lewiston-Porter graduate and current Niagara County Community College student on the Buffalo Destroyers cheer-dance squad in 2002-03. The two are the spokeswomen for the program.
"When she was going through chemo, I knew we were going to do something, even before I was hired by the Rapids," Altieri said. "I thought if ever I were to coach a pro team again, I'd like to get the team involved in something like this."
Altieri requires the women coaches to volunteer in the community and in area hospitals, and doing something for cancer patients seemed logical since a member of the Rush family recently battled the illness for more than six months.
When Altieri was the cheer-dance director for the defunct Destroyers' Buffalo Bombshells, many of the girls she coached -- many of whom are on the Rush -- participated in a similar program with Women and Children's Hospital in Buffalo, where they would drop off gift baskets, mingle with patients and entertain them with dance routines.
The Rush are not allowed to go room-to-room at Roswell Park to distribute the baskets because they could be inadvertently carrying germs that could compromise the treatment of a patient with a vulnerable immune system.
"It's very difficult," said Altieri, who volunteered at area hospitals during her time as a professional cheerleader with the Buffalo Jills. "In my opinion, the strength and courage of cancer patients is to be admired. It was really and truly our pleasure in doing Rush to Recovery."
Each of the Rush's 17 members was responsible for purchasing the age- and gender-specific items for the baskets. While each cheerleader was only responsible for putting together one basket, some made multiple baskets. Niagara Falls' Kristyn Hill received additional donations from the cheerleaders she coaches at Niagara Catholic High School.
While Rush members were asked to spend only $8 to $10 on gifts per basket, most of them exceeded that price range rather easily. Some of the items purchased included a compact disc player/radio receiver with earphones, Barbie and Brat dolls and accessories, crayons and coloring books, hats, a sports-themed basket for one lucky male that included a football, basketball and Sports Illustrated NFL Preview issue, toy cars, lotion and jewelry. Each cheerleader labeled the basket with the age and gender it was to be given to and also included a card with an inspirational message.
One of the cards read: "For a special young lady between ages 11-13. Wishing you a speedy Rush to Recovery. Smooches to ya. Denise"
"That's a really big part of how we want to establish our reputation as a cheerleading squad in the Western New York area, because we've been touched by cancer," said McGowan, whose older sister Kelly also is a cancer survivor. "It motivates people to want to do things when they've been touched with experiences in their life."
Sterner is among them. She knows how difficult it is to endure a routine of chemotherapy and white-cell injections.
Besides sharing her cancer battle publicly as a way of inspiring other patients, she also donated a picture frame to Roswell Park featuring a team photo and press clippings documenting her battle. Included in the frame are pictures of her successfully trying out for the Rush two days after receiving white-cell injections and three days before chemo. The picture is hanging up in the phlebotomy room, where all patients who receive blood work before treatments can see and read it.
"I think it's good that it will be up there for people to see, especially people my age or younger who are going through chemo or having cancer," Sterner said. "They can see that and it can be inspirational to them, and they can see they can accomplish something while they're going through treatment as well."
Sterner will be making future visits to Roswell Park as a patient since she has to get checked up regularly to make sure the cancer has not returned. If she remains cancer-free for five years, until July 2010, she would be considered recovered.
The team plans other things for patients in the future as part of Rush to Recovery, whether it's another basket donation, a dance performance or providing low-impact dance clinics. The team plans to drop off more baskets and perform at Roswell Park around the holidays.
While the team continues to plot its next course of action, Sterner filled out paperwork to become a volunteer at Roswell Park. Monday proved to her that she's ready to help others directly. She no longer feels nauseated at the first sight of a needle, nor does she feel queasy when she walks through the doors of the facility. She has overcome the traumatic memories of chemotherapy and now is capable of helping others get through their ordeal.
And that gives her another reason to smile.