Promoting breast cancer awareness is Colleen Nossavage's mission.
Nossavage has two grandmothers, a great aunt and a mother who had breast cancer. Her mother is a 23-year survivor. Nossavage knows her own risk and wants others to be aware of the risks of breast cancer.
The 47-year-old Lewiston resident recently received the Love Award from the Susan G. Komen Foundation at its 15th annual survivors’ luncheon for her tireless efforts to promote the WNY Race for the Cure and her dedication to the Komen mission.
“I work hard for Komen because I want everyone to know their risk and get screened. Breast cancer does not have to take a life – early diagnosis and the best treatments equal survival,” said Nossavage, who points to her own mother’s early diagnosis.
Her mission takes on a special urgency during October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness month, but Nossavage said women should be aware every month.
Nossavage is the station and community coordinator at WGRZ-TV and has participated in the WNY Race for the Cure every year since the first race in 2001. She is a longtime member of the Komen board of directors and served as board president from 2011-13. She served on the race committee, public policy committee, community engagement committee, PR committee and currently serves as chairman of the grants committee.
She is the mother of four, three boys and a girl, who along with her husband, David, volunteer or race with her, she said. Her mother comes as well.
"It reminds her after 23 years of what she went through," said Nossavage. "How fragile life is."
The Komen’s Love Award is given to a volunteer, like Nossavage, who has also volunteered with the Lewiston-Porter PTA, was a soccer coach for the Niagara Police Athletic League and helped the Kids Escaping Drugs program.
Other honorees at the Survivor Luncheon on Oct. 8 were Dr. Saif Soniwala of Soniwala Hemotology Oncology Associates in Williamsville, who was given the Hope Award, which is awarded to a breast health professional who conducts research in the field; and Kathy Kowal of Buffalo, the winner of the Faith Award, given to a breast cancer survivor who advocates in the community for support, screening or treatment and works to empower other women.
Tell me about the Komen Foundation recognition?
I’m a kind of behind-the-scenes person, but it is truly an honor. I love this organization and it was a no-brainer to be involved.
What does the Susan G. Komen Foundation do?
The Western New York chapter is 14 going on 15 years old, but the national organization itself is 32 years old. They have affiliates across the globe. It started in Western New York with a group of volunteers that saw a need. The Race for the Cure is Susan G. Komen Foundation's signature event – a national race series. It was one of the first ones.
How did you get involved?
I started off pretty simple. I was a runner. I would run different 5k races every year. My sister and I would take part in as many as we could, and when I found out Race for the Cure was coming here I participated as a runner. It just so happened that I work at Channel 2 and they were a sponsor of the race. It grew from there.
You also said you have a family history of breast cancer.
Both my grandmothers had breast cancer, my mother had breast cancer, so I had a personal connection with the issue. I had known about the race as a runner. It came here and it is a cause I am passionate about. My one grandmother (Nonnie Carroll of Grand Island) is still around. My mother's mother (Lola Sobieski of Schnenectady ) passed away in 1995. Breast cancer took her life. My mother (Debbie Carroll of Niagara Falls) was diagnosed in 1993. She was only 43 years old when she was diagnosed, which at that time was pretty young and not something you commonly see in young people. My mom is the mother of five. I'm the oldest of five. It was a scary time for our family. My grandmother was battling the disease at the same time my mother was diagnosed. At the time I was 23 years old. My mom never showed how scared she was during her treatments, but now that I am a mother - I'm in the same age bracket, I look back and think that must have been very scary for her.
Why is it so important to educate others about breast cancer?
Because of my grandmother's experience my mother was diagnosed early. It was on the radar for her. Her physician was on the look out for it. Because she was diagnosed early and got early treatment she had a good outcome. She was able to get treatment and survive and have a full life with 10 grandchildren. She was lucky. What motivates me to be involved in an organization like this is that I want everyone to have that same chance. If you detect it early enough your survival rate is 98 percent.
I'm not sure everyone realizes that.
That's one of the stigmas that Susan G. Komen works to overcome - that everyone deserves a fighting chance against cancer. If you get your screenings, take care of yourself and know your risks, this doesn't have to be a life sentence by any means. I know my risks and I started at 29 getting annual mammograms. But having people in my family that have breast cancer only slightly increases my risks - but I am ultra aware. Other people think, "Oh I'll get to it." It's not on their radar at all. I know a handful of women, my age, with no family history, who have been completely blindsided by a diagnosis.
How does Susan G. Komen reach out to women?
What they do is wonderful. If you make a donation to the Western New York affiliate, 75 percent of that donation stays in Western New York. Twenty-five percent goes to breast cancer research. In the last 32 years Susan G. Komen research grants have funded unbelievable breakthroughs in treatment and screenings. You are also addressing the needs in your community. Every affiliate across the country does this.
How are these funds used locally?
Western New York is a diverse area. You have urban areas and rural areas and each those areas provide different challenges to get screened. Transportation is a huge barrier, even in the rural areas. You reach out to women to let them know they need to be screened, but who is going to drive 2 1/2 hours to get a mammogram. There's also gaps in insurance coverage. There are state programs that will pay for your mammogram if you are 40 years and up. These grants help do outreach, get people screened, educate them and help them with barriers in transportation - like gas cards or we can take a mobile mammography unit out to certain neighborhoods.
Have you ever had a diagnosis?
About eight years ago I was given a clinical exam and the nurse practitioner said, "Do you know you have a lump in your left breast?" I almost rolled off the table. I had just had a mammogram. I pay attention to myself. I didn't feel it. I was recommended to have additional tests done. I have dense breasts and had some additional ultrasounds. I was told because of my family history I should go to Roswell (Park Cancer Institute.) I had a lumpectomy. It was benign. But now I am a part of the Roswell high risk clinic. I not only get mammograms, but I also get MRIs because that is a better tool to really get a good image of my situation. I was lucky it was benign, but you need to see a physician. You need regular exams. You need to stay on top of those things. Catching it early is the key . You need to advocate for yourself. As you get older your risks increase for everything.