By Carole Bernard
To some, October might mean blowing leaves from the yard, pulling out sweaters or buying candy for Halloween. But to Sandra Fischer, Jennifer Pizzanello and Diane Hernsdorf, October means something very different and personal. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Fischer was ordained as a United Church of Christ minister in October 2012 and received her breast cancer diagnosis two months later. Given her public role in the community, Rev. Fischer chose to share her diagnosis openly. As a member of South Congregational Church, I was present when she tearfully told us from the pulpit of her condition. I thought it was one of the bravest things I had ever witnessed.
Fischer quietly, courageously and gracefully went through her treatment. Members of the congregation, along with numerous friends from the greater Granby community, pitched in, supporting Fischer and her family. Errands were run, meals were made and dropped off at the house, and many people joined Fischer and her family on Team Granby, participating in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure-Hartford.
To commemorate her experience, and to inspire others who are also affected by this much too common disease, Fischer asked Lois (affectionately known as Lanie) Neumann, a member of South Church and a quilter, to make a minister’s stole. Neumann modestly pointed to her mother-in-law, Diane Hernsdorf, as the appropriate person, describing Hernsdorf’s talent and experience with sewing. When Neumann died unexpectedly in June 2014, Hernsdorf felt compelled to take up the challenge.
Work on the stole began in earnest in April and was completed in September, just in time for October’s awareness campaign. In keeping with United Church of Christ’s tradition, of which South Church is a part, stoles contain color themes according to the church calendar, but individual designs are up to the minister’s choosing. Fabrics and other notions were selected that would best highlight the design Hernsdorf created, inspired by the ubiquitous pink loop. There are other items of significance that appear on the stole, in particular, a symbolic reference to a sermon about engaging with personal struggles until one can obtain a blessing from them.
Hernsdorf had her own private fight with breast cancer in 1994, after losing her husband in 1991. Because she was in the midst of planning her daughter, Jennifer Pizzanello’s, wedding in 1994, Hernsdorf did not want to have attention focused on her. So she very quietly underwent her surgery and recovery. When Pizzanello, also a member of South Church, was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2014, making the stole became an even more significant and healing project.
Pizzanello was with her mother during many of Hernsdorf’s stole design and construction sessions. Pizzanello has almost completed her treatment. All three women are now cancer-free.
Encouraged by several caring women in Granby, Fischer has also used her considerable energy to organize the ABC (After Breast Cancer) Playgroup, inspired by the Life is Good Foundation. The group is comprised of women in the greater-Granby area who have experienced a diagnosis of breast cancer. Fischer met many of the initial participants in the group through the Farmington Valley YMCA-Live Strong program for cancer survivors. In the ABC Playgroup, women who are recently diagnosed receive support, tips and comfort from compassionate women who are further along in the process. The unofficial motto of the group is Don’t Postpone Joy! The monthly gatherings are focused on having fun, whether it is a game of bunco, a picnic in the park or a spa night.
Pizzanello has also become involved in the group. Having grown up in Granby, she said this group has given her a whole new perspective on the community. It has also become easier for her to bond, form relationships and have things to discuss.
Throughout the year, there is a mix of survivor-only evenings, couples gatherings and family activities. It is emotionally vital for the whole family to know they are not alone on this life-altering journey.
ABC Playgroup is not affiliated with South Church and is open to any woman from the area who has been diagnosed with breast cancer and seeks to give and receive positive support. For more information, contact Fischer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hernsdorf has felt a great deal of satisfaction in designing and completing the special stole for Fischer, who has expressed her deep gratitude, not only to Hernsdorf, Pizzanello and the South Church community, but also for the broader supportive community she has found in Granby. Fischer said, “The love and encouragement coming from so many directions blessed me immeasurably during my breast cancer journey. Because of that support, I discovered that I possess more strength, courage and joy than I imagined. I choose now to use my experience to help extend that blessing to others.”
The October sunlight on the brilliantly colored leaves in Granby can leave one breathless, but it pales in comparison to the light emanating from these incredible women.