The D&C shines a light on HTI

Special outreach to cancer patients

Nonprofits aid with the financial burden of a breast cancer diagnosis
Laura Robertaccio never had a massage before undergoing treatment for metastatic breast cancer. The Henrietta mother was diagnosed in 2004 when she was 28 years old, then more tumors were found in 2006, then in 2008.

“Massages are part of my personal treatment plan,” Robertaccio says. “I look forward to the massages. I can relax, there’s no pain involved, I don’t get nauseous. If anything, I feel rejuvenated. I just feel great.” Ross says Robertaccio is one of the most upbeat cancer patients she knows, and as a mom herself, Ross is moved by what Robertaccio has gone through.

“Cancer changes your reality. It becomes about appointments and treatments,” Ross says. “When I think about it, it really gets to me. It’s the unfairness of it, you get blindsided.”

Ross adds that 75 percent of her nonprofit’s applicants are women and half of those have breast cancer. The nonprofit so far has disbursed 600 (at time of printing 4/11) vouchers redeemable for massages; 50% clients opt to pay part of the cost.

“Human touch is very calming and can have a soothing influence during an extraordinarily stressful time,” Ross says. Stress reduction and greater well-being are among massage’s benefits, but Ross says there’s also clinical evidence that it can help relieve pain, insomnia, anxiety and depression. “We know it reduces stress hormones in the blood that can reduce the efficiency of the immune system,” she says.

The problem with services — even if covered by insurance — is that co-pays and other expenses add up, costing the average breast cancer patient $30,000, says Susan Cooney, president of Embrace Your Sisters, an Ontario County-based program that has given more than $121,000 to more than 200 breast cancer patients since December 2007.

“It’s impressive, until you figure 1,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the seven-county region we serve,” Cooney says. “And 300 of those people live at the poverty level — or fall into it because of the associated expenses. … A lot of people who live paycheck-to-paycheck go from being financially stable to really needing our help.”

Chrisann Philipson’s realization that she “couldn’t afford to have this cancer” is how Embrace Your Sisters began.

“I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time in 2006 and was complaining about co-pays for the surgeries and having to be off work,” says Philipson, who grew up in Ionia, Ontario County. “Between surgery and treatment, I was out of work for about three months.”

Her sister, Judie Raffard, wanted to have a fundraiser to help her, but Philipson felt uncomfortable having it be all about her. So, they decided to give the chicken barbecue and silent auction and use some of what was raised to help others with their expenses. That event raised $6,000, and $4,000 went to funding Embrace Your Sisters — a name chosen because when Raffard learned Philipson had breast cancer, she just wanted to hug her.

Besides giving money, the organization works to educate the 25 percent of the population with the highest mortality rate for the disease: African-American and Hispanic women, those over 60 and the rural poor who don’t have easy access to mammograms and doctor’s appointments, Cooney says.

Available resources
For more information on the Human Touch Initiative and Embrace Your Sisters, go to and, respectively.

Some other resources available:
Webster-based S.I.S., Sustain Inspire Survive, provides financial help for breast cancer patients to cover immediate needs, including medical co-pays, mortgage, rent, utilities and groceries. They also are often able to connect service providers with those who need appliance and car repair, wigs, prostheses, house cleaning and crisis child care.
Area residents who lack resources for an MRI for breast cancer screening can apply for help from the Mary Lukacs MRI Fund. It was created by Lukacs’ friends and family, who believe that an earlier MRI may have extended her life.
The Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester provides numerous services, advocacy and education.

Ginny Weisel of Gates, left, owner of Life Journey Massage, shares a laugh with client Laura Robertaccio of Henrietta.
Article by: Anne Schuhle, freelance writer from Canandaigua