Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

A Journey, a Cause: A personal crisis sparked a movement to battle breast cancer.

In 1993, Pat Halpin-Murphy beat breast cancer.

She could have simply returned to her daily routine, but she felt called to do something more.

“After I got over the shock of the diagnosis and finished treatment, I really felt that I was spared, and something of a miracle, and I wanted to give something back,” she said.

She soon founded The PA Breast Cancer Coalition. Its goal—“to help find a cure for breast cancer so that our daughters don’t have to,” she said.

The Lebanon-based organization aims to tackle breast cancer through legislative advocacy, education and research funding.

Dressed in a pink blazer, adorned with a shiny, faceted gemstone breast cancer awareness pin, Halpin-Murphy explained its first focus: to force insurance companies to provide mammograms at no cost (no copay, no coinsurance or deductible) for women beginning in their 40s.

At the time, many insurance companies didn’t pay for them, and those that did often didn’t cover women under 50. Halpin-Murphy’s cancer was discovered when she was in her 40s.

“People all over the state rose up to get the legislation through,” she said.

And, in 1994, it passed. Halpin-Murphy noted that this law didn’t pass federally until 2010.

Since then, the PBCC has successfully championed legislation that requires mammography centers to notify women of their breast density, that removed a time limit for insurance companies to cover breast reconstructive surgery and that extended Medicaid coverage for breast cancer treatment, among other victories.


A Bonfire

Personal advocacy and education are also important to the PBCC. One way the group accomplishes this is through the traveling photo exhibit, 67 Women, 67 Counties: Facing Breast Cancer in PA.”

“At that time [1993] not everyone was comfortable saying, ‘I’m a breast cancer survivor,’” said Halpin-Murphy. “Some women were and some women weren’t, and that’s still true. And we wanted to make a comfortable, safe space for women with breast cancer to do that.”

In the end, hundreds of women applied to be in the exhibit.

“I feel like we started a bonfire,” she said. “People had just been waiting for a way to acknowledge what they’d been through in their treatment and survivorship.”

One of those women was Joyce Ashe of Steelton. In a booth at Panera Bread, sporting white and pink, custom-made breast cancer sneakers, given to her by her son, she talked about her breast cancer journey.

She was diagnosed in 2010 and discovered the PBCC through a friend at church.

That same friend had the PBCC send Ashe a “Friends Like Me” care package. That free package included information, a personal note of encouragement, books and other items.

“The note inside said, ‘This box has been put together by people who’ve been through what you are going through, and you’re not in this journey alone,’” she said. “That meant so much to me. I was so overwhelmed.”

Ashe has taken her experience and used it to help others.

She hums with enthusiasm for the work and described herself as a “mammo nag,” encouraging women, especially in the African American community, to get mammograms and to reach out to others if diagnosed.

“It’s a journey not to be taken alone,” she said. “Why shed a tear and use a tissue when you can have a hug?”


Current Focus

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and, with the diagnosis, comes the “what ifs.” PBCC helps people with these concerns through its full-time Director of Patient Advocacy Dolores Magro.

“You get diagnosed one day, and the next day you are in the world of things you don’t know,” Magro said.

Callers to the hotline have access to Magro’s 24 years of gathering resources for women and men diagnosed with breast cancer. She connects them with financial assistance, prosthetics, employment solutions, free mammograms, treatment for those without insurance and much more.

What makes the PBCC special is that “you get a person not a phone tree,” Magro said.

PBCC has awarded 98 peer-reviewed research grants, totally $3 million. Money from that research has assisted in developing a new element to help in the treatment of inflammatory breast cancer, an especially aggressive form, giving women longer periods of wellness.

Halpin-Murphy said that a current focus is on women with recurring breast cancer.

“We have more survivors than ever, but we can’t forget our sisters with metastatic breast cancer,” she said.

Funding for this research and advocacy comes from grassroots partners, “mostly through private individuals and organizations,” said Halpin-Murphy. Groups hold dress-down days, golf outings and events such as the “Drive Out Breast Cancer Campaign” held at major car dealerships in the area.

The PA Dairymen’s Association supports the PBCC by offering free Farm Show milkshakes on Oct. 1 at the state Capitol, when the fountain begins running pink for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Another important event is the PA Breast Cancer Coalition Conference, held at the Hilton Harrisburg on Oct. 18. This event brings survivors and those coping with cancer together for networking, workshops and fun.

“We don’t do depressing,” said Halpin-Murphy

Her own breast cancer experience birthed an organization that’s been fighting for and alongside women for 26 years. It’s moved closer to its goal.

“Treatment for breast cancer has improved immensely over the last several decades, and women are living longer and longer after diagnosis,” she said.

To learn more about the PA Breast Cancer Coalition, send a “Friends Like Me” box, or register for the PA Breast Cancer Coalition Conference, visit Patient advocate Dolores Magro can be reached at 610-622-3390.

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