2 Gilbert women put cancer stories on stage

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By Cecilla Chan, GSN Managing Editor

Crystal Reidy may have won her battle with breast cancer but for the Gilbert mother, it’s not over.

The 42-year-old has taken her new lease on life by supporting other moms who are fighting Stage 4 breast cancer with proceeds from her nonprofit Pink Sister Yard Sale.

“I just started having yard sales because I felt bad,” said Reidy, who’s lived in Gilbert for 25 years. “I was in remission and other women in stage 4 never get into remission. They are constantly battling it. So, when I realized that, it really spoke to me.”

She started off selling her stuff and then it was her friends’ stuff in bi-annual yard sales to raise money for cash grants given to women so they can pay an electric bill or buy food. Last year, the group raised $3,000.

Reidy is one of eight East Valley women – including two from Gilbert – who will tell their story of healing through helping at the annual S.T.A.R.S.: Survivors Tell A Real Story” event on March 24 in Scottsdale.

The event is sponsored by A2ndAct, which celebrates and supports women survivors of all cancers who use their newly realized gifts of life and experience to give back for the greater good. The nonprofit awards each woman $1,000 to grow their second acts.

Reidy was six months pregnant with her youngest child when her body began shutting down.

“I had lot of medical problems and they didn’t know quite why,” Reidy recalled. “My blood pressure was extremely high, which they thought it was pregnancy-related. My vital signs were very low, very weak.”

At 26 weeks into her pregnancy, she gave birth to her premature son, who went straight into an incubator. He is now 7.

Four months later doctors finally diagnosed Reidy with breast cancer that was now in stage 3.

“The only risk factor I had was that I was in Iraq,” said Reidy, who was in the Army National Guard and was deployed from 2008-09. She retired Dec. 5, 2017 after 23 years of service.

U.S. troops stationed overseas are filing claims for illnesses they say came from exposure to toxic smoke from open-air fire pits at military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Reidy’s treatment included 24 doses of chemotherapy drugs, radiation every day for six weeks and invasive surgery that took out 28 lymph nodes. She finished in May 2013.

“What kept me going was knowing this was going to be over in a year and I could go on with my life,” she said. “It wasn’t until the end I realized, oh, wait there is a lot of women with stage 4 who will never get off of the cycle of chemo, radiation and surgery.

“They don’t get to go on with their lives. Their lives go on but they have to constantly fight this beast.”

Reidy also holds an annual breast cancer survivor retreat.

“We kind of up-lift them and do make-up tutorials and have a vision board, what is your life after cancer,” she said. “Cancer is not your life.”

The next two-day retreat is planned for June, she said.

Elizabeth Ayers Cluff also has a story to tell.

The Gilbert resident was 37 when she was diagnosed in 2009 with breast cancer. She went to her doctor complaining about pressure on her right breast whenever she put on a sports bra to go running.

Cancer was not on her mind as there was no history of it in her family and there was no lump in her breast, she said.

Because she was not 40, her doctor sought authorization for her to get a mammogram.

A biopsy confirmed stage 3 breast cancer for the mom of three children all under 6 at the time. Treatment included a mastectomy, surgery to remove 21 lymph nodes, chemo and radiation.

Even more challenging was the nine surgeries to reconstruct her breast.

“I was over-radiated,” she said. “It burned a hole in my skin that went to the chest wall. My body rejected so much of the reconstruction.”

She underwent years of hyperbaric therapy to close up that hole.

Her insurance would not cover the cost of a wig or a prosthetic breast because she was going to have reconstruction surgery.

“So, I was left completely flat and concave in,” she said. “I put myself in that category of going without a lot of items and it affected me mentally and I had a hard time being out in public.”

But, she thought, how much harder it was for mothers with breast cancer who didn’t have the support of a husband or friends or even insurance like she had, she said.

“It really bothered me,” said the former social worker. “I can’t image women who are under-insured with no help.”

When she finished treatment and was better, she reached out to local retailers to see if they had any items to donate.

That request of “can you donate” landed her with so much product in 2015 that Ayers Cluff took her efforts to another level.

She formed a nonprofit, set up a website and contacted American Cancer Society and oncology centers to refer women to Impact One.

The nonprofit provides prosthesis, bras, wigs and post-surgical garments to women during breast cancer-treatment and recovery.

A core of volunteers sends out packages to women all over the country and to a clinic in Mexico that reached out to the group. About 800 women so far have received packages tailored for their needs, Ayers Cluff said

Ayers Cluff, 48, spent 10 years in remission until five months ago when she began feeling unwell.

“My back was hurting and my instinct was to go to my oncologist,” she said.

Her cancer had returned and was in the spine.

“The re-diagnosis set me back a bit,” she said. “I’m on chemo treatment every four weeks and my body is responding really well to the treatment. A re-diagnosis is never good. I thought, ‘This is not good.’ I went through my ‘poor me’ for six weeks.”

After that, she threw herself back into serving others, which she said mentally healed her.

Impact One recently partnered with a couple or organizations to give free mammograms for over 60 women in a two-day event.

“This incredible group of women are doing some exceptional things in their 2nd Acts,” said Judy Pearson, founder of A2ndAct.org. “Their stories will serve as inspiration for anyone who has ever had a life challenge – and who hasn’t.”

Each year the organization chooses eight new women to share their stories in the curated, professionally produced storytelling performance.

“For the first time I was able to put on paper the relationship I had with cancer,” said Reidy. “I correlated that with being in the military. You go to the same war and by the grace of God I come back but the other soldiers didn’t.  You can’t leave a soldier behind. I can’t get better and go forward.  Anything I can to support women who are still out in the battlefield is what I want to do.”