This was written by one of our interns, Natalie Swift 6 years ago. We thought we would share such a wonderful survivor story to inspire you. - Sherry
"Sit back, close your eyes, and picture the turquoise of the beautiful and tranquil sea. The
sequins represent the starlight bouncing off the sheen of the water, and it shines down on you in all your grace and beauty. Be blessed on your journey, and wear your cap proudly. Remember, you ARE a HOT CHICK, and you are a SURVIVOR. God bless you! Love, Susan Victorious"
These encouraging words are some of many that accompany Susan Heimbigner's gift bags
through her non-profit organization, The Sparkle Caps Project. As of last month, Susan is a five-year survivor of ductal carcinoma. When she was diagnosed on February 24, 2010, Susan had a lumpectomy two weeks later, followed by six rounds of chemo, 33 radiation treatments and a full year of Herceptin infusion finishing March 2011.
"During my treatment for breast cancer, one of the motivating factors was I knew that some
women didn't have any support…I was mistreated at work, and to be diagnosed with breast cancer, to have to do that fight, and have your employer try to fire you, it's really rough. It added stress to a journey that people don’t need, so I prayed during my treatment that God would use my journey so that I could help other women, and the only answer to that prayer was the word, 'Listen'"
Two weeks later, Susan was walking through the radiation department at South Carolina
Oncology Associates (SCOA), when she heard a woman comment on the yellow sparkle cap she was wearing - "Now I can wear cute hats like hers " - and knew that the woman was about to start chemo. Two weeks later, Susan had three referrals from the breast cancer center for sparkle caps.
The Sparkle Caps Project has three goals: to uplift and empower women in treatment for cancer, to let them know that they are hot chicks in spite of their hair loss, and that their femininity is not tied to their hair. For Susan, losing her hair was what she feared the most, but once her husband actually shaved her head, she was fine. The anticipation of losing her femininity was part of the motivation for Sparkle Caps, because whenever she wore a sparkle cap, she received compliments and felt like people were focusing on her as a person and not just her bald head. From the conversations about her sparkle caps, Susan was also able to explain where she was in her journey with breast cancer and help other
women remember to get mammograms.
Susan explained to me how sometimes it was hard to convince women that they have to be
their best advocates: "we're always used to taking care of people, but we have to take care of ourselves. This is a time in our lives where we come first and to have this positive attitude and laughter and find the joy in every single day because that's what helps get us through. I think sometimes that's the difference between surviving and not surviving so it's really important."
Throughout her journey, Susan has not only created The Sparkle Caps Project, but has also
gained abundant personal growth. "I've gotten closer to God and talk more about Him where before I would never witness. I'm very shy, but I've given four speeches and I've loved doing that. My thought is that if God takes you to it then He's gonna take you through it so I know that God led me to do those speeches so He was going to get me through it. I never know how many people I have touched, but God does. It's amazing to have the best boss in the world."
Even years after her treatment has been over, Susan is still listening so that she can recognize
the people that God put in her path who need a gift bag but haven't been referred. The fact that Susan will listen to patients' stories and give them encouragement is something she finds out they don't get anywhere else. A woman Susan met on an elevator who knew she was dying was coming to SCOA for her labs, and the two talked for a few minutes before the woman went in the waiting room and Susan went to pass out gift bags. Susan was about to leave but knew she needed to turn around, so she started talking to the woman once again and they talked for 45 minutes. The woman said her family couldn't accept that she was dying and she needed to talk to someone so badly. The whole time the two were talking, the woman was never called for her lab, which usually took barely any time at all. The minute they got up to hug and say goodbye they called her. Before Susan left, the woman told her she really needed her today, which is one example of how this project is so much more than a gift bag.
Though Susan is constantly preparing gift bags and meeting women who are battling cancer, she told me that she barely ever thinks about her breast cancer. "My friend who helped me when I first started, she's a 25-year breast cancer survivor, I told her about how sensitive it is handing out gift bags. I always have to take a day off when I've gone out to SCOA because I have to emotionally heal the next day because I cry a lot, and she said, 'Well that's because you're thinking about your own breast cancer journey' but it's actually the furthest thing from my mind. Someone will ask me about it and I'll have to stop and think about it, 'oh I am a breast cancer survivor' because instead I'm thinking about what they are going through and I'm helping them."
Each gift bag includes a HOT CHICK cap, a knit or crocheted cap, one book from a selection
Susan has including "The Red Sea Rules" and "Jesus Calling" a personal novel, a crossword or word-finder, a handmade angel and gift note, a mini gift bag of goodies to use in the chemo chair, and personal letters to bless each recipient, which are all funded by donations and sponsors. Each woman gets these items from Susan when she delivers them to SCOA. You can find this information and more, including how to donate to this vision, at sparklecapsproject.com, and I can assure you that this God- loving woman has put her heart and soul into this project that has reached almost 1200 women with gift bags. My interview with Susan showed me the impact a woman can make from simply listening, and
how this project is so, so much more than just a gift bag.