Weekly Interview
Carrie Helliesen

By Jason Koler

American Cancer Society Executive Director Carrie Helliesen has lived in the Keys for 29 years – 17 of them as a cancer survivor. Her husband and daughter are both native Conchs and she earned “Honorary Conch” status from former County Commissioner Wilhelmina Harvey. Her dog, Buster, was a cancer survivor.

More than 4,100 people are diagnosed with cancer everyday and everyone in America has somehow been touched by cancer. How has cancer affected your life?
In “another life,” I was a teacher, and in 1994 I was diagnosed with cancer. I had just signed a contract to teach at a Montessori, but needed 10 months in chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. After all of that, I couldn’t go back to teaching, and I was looking for a part time job; so when I applied for the position with the ACS, my life turned from education in the classroom to education in community.

The Cancer Society was there for me. They supplied me with emotional support and the patient resource room with brand new wigs, scarves and the “Look Good…Feel Better” program.

Today there are more than 11 million cancer survivors who have beat cancer. What are some of the basic steps we should take to avoid this devastating disease?
Everyday 350 people celebrate birthdays due to cancer research – compared to numbers 20 years ago. It is so important to get checked early because early detection is critical to saving lives. I think that is one thing that people don’t realize that our 800 number (800-227-2345) is vital hotline number. We just don’t have an operator on the other end. We have doctors, specialists and people who care.

That one service is saving a lot of lives.

The American Cancer Society of the Florida Keys has three staff members but raised $420,000 in 2010. Obviously your administrative assistant, Jeff Bozorth, cannot be replaced and the Upper and Middle Keys representative, Claudia Diaz, is near sainthood. But how do you accomplish so much with such a small staff?
It is because of the 1000+ ACS volunteers and supporters in the Keys. Their dedication and efforts are the key and reason for so many successes and advancements in accomplishing our mission! I think it is also important that anyone can help. Anyone can help fight cancer – from sponsorships, to helping with Relay or attending the Gala, to simply driving a person to treatment or to just be a person willing to listen. Each one of these things is very important for people to have their lives saved.

The American Cancer Society in the Florida Keys is about to launch a new event called Bark For Life. Dogs are an important part of many people’s lives. What kind of affect can an animal have on a cancer patient?
The same research and treatments can affect dogs that affect people. It is about the companionship with canines, and my dog, Buster, took care of me when I had cancer. He was always lying at my feet and was truly a companion and a caregiver. He came into my family’s life for a purpose. In 2008, he got cancer and we provided the same support for him that he showed us.

Bark For Life is a Relay For Life fundraiser celebrating the dogs in our lives and honoring their care-giving qualities. The event will take place on Saturday, March 26 at the Dog Park and adjacent circle in Key West. It is like a carnival for dogs, but highlights cancer survivors and caregivers and includes a dog walk for the participating canines and their owners. Instead of musical chairs, there will be musical sits.

The cat lovers will have an area to remember their feline pets, too.

Relay For Life is the American Cancer Society’s single most important avenue to raise funds for cancer research, educational programs and patient services. How has the event changed in the 16 years since you have been with the ACS?
The three Relay events combined, per capita, Monroe County has been in the Top Ten for several years on a national level and that number continues to rise each year. Last year, the Lower Keys earned $212,000; Middle Keys brought in $108,000; and the Upper Keys netted $55,000. The Lower Keys Relay has been in the top 25 Relays in the state for the last few years. Last year, we got to No. 7, and this year we are hoping for the No. 1 spot! The Middle Keys are getting very close to being one of the Top 25.

The American Cancer Society is most known for supporting cancer research through fundraising efforts, but few people realize that the ACS provides an extensive network of support for those fighting cancer like wigs, cosmetics and prostheses. What are some of the other resources the ACS provides?
It’s true, and ACS funds more cancer research than any other non-profit organization outside of the federal government. The American Cancer Society is clearly saving lives. We are saving lives by helping people stay well through early detection programs and by funding community education grants, such as the one that ACS just awarded Womankind in Key West. ACS is saving lives by helping people get well; through the cancer resource network, we are connecting newly diagnosed patients to a plethora of community and national resources for day to day help and emotional support; and providing life-saving patient programs such as Road to Recovery, where volunteer drivers take patients to and from treatment anywhere in the Keys and Miami; or one on one breast cancer and prostate cancer support programs; Look Good…Feel Better; and childhood cancer programs, where ACS will provide a full college scholarship to any college or university in Florida to any student who has been diagnosed with cancer by the age of 21; or a week of camp to any 6 to16 year old going through any stage of treatment; or a family weekend for the entire family.

ACS is saving lives by funding research and fighting back by keeping cancer in the forefront of the lawmakers’ minds.

For more information regarding the American Cancer Society, please visit www.cancer.org, or call the local office at (305) 292-2333.

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