Angela Long looks great in bright pink. All eyes follow her as she walks on stage in a stunning dress during last year's Night of Hope in Sarasota, FL. The annual gala benefits the Center for Building Hope, which is presenting her with its Keystone Award for extraordinary service and commitment to the breast cancer community. Seeing all the tables full of family, friends and supporters, she marvels at the twists and turns her life has taken. "Life's a roller coaster," she says, quoting author Kristen Ashley. "Best damn ride in the park. You don’t close your eyes, hold on and wait for it to be over, babe. You keep your eyes open, lift your hands straight up in the air and enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts."
As on any roller coaster, she started with a smooth, steady climb. After graduating from college, she married her high school sweetheart and started a picture-perfect family with two kids, a boy and a girl. A busy young mom, she never dreamed she would be diagnosed with late stage two breast cancer at age 35, when her kids were only five and two years old. She spent the next 18 months undergoing six surgeries, eight rounds of chemotherapy and 12 months of Herceptin treatments.
Throughout this time, she struggles to find the right resources. She and her husband, Brian, search the internet for information that would be relevant for her diagnosis, age and location. Not finding a single resource that addresses all her concerns, Angela becomes somewhat of an expert herself. Other survivors begin reaching out to her for advice and support. She starts speaking at events and becomes a top local fundraiser for breast cancer charities. To put all her information in one place, she founds Breast Investigators in 2009. This website is growing into a vibrant online community of people "taking the mystery out of breast cancer."
As she describes her ups and downs in her acceptance speech, Angela looks around the Ritz Carlton ballroom and sees Joanne Hampton, watching her with pride and joy. Like Angela, Joanne was also diagnosed with breast cancer when her kids were ages five and two. Another young survivor, she felt alone and embarrassed by her illness. She was appalled when some mothers told their kids not to play with her son, as though her breast cancer could somehow be contagious.
After her treatment, Joanne and her husband move their family from New York to Sarasota to be near her parents. She doesn't know anyone in the area. One day, her daughter forgets her pre-school snack. When Joanne brings it to her, she notices that a substitute is teaching, wearing a big pink ribbon. When Joanne learns that she is a fellow survivor, she suggests they have coffee. The teacher asks another friend to come along, too. That third woman turns out to be Angela Long.
Angela and Joanne have been great friends ever since. They seem like Mary and Rhoda of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. While Angela is tall, trim, elegant and polite, Joanne is chubby and blunt, with a distinct New York accent. Yet they recognize each other's tremendous compassion and hard work. "I can send Angela an email at 3:00 a.m., and she'll respond at 3:12," says Joanne. "She'll say, 'What's wrong? Can't sleep?'. She's always there for everyone."
Over the years, they support each other's projects, as when Joanne helps to bring a Pink Heals firetruck to St. Armands Circle in 2010. Angela asks Joanne innumerable times to partner with her on Breast Investigators. She finally agrees last year, so the endeavor has been growing rapidly. They often work at Center for Building Hope, which has been selected by a local Brighton Collectibles to be the beneficiary of its Power of Pink campaign.
Even with so much to do, Angela takes on yet another project last September. When she learns that the IBCPC Dragon Boat Festival takes place for the first time in the US this year -- in Sarasota -- she forms Survivors in Sync, a dragon boat team, to ensure that local survivors have the opportunity to participate. The international festival occurs once every four years and celebrates a change in conventional wisdom. Previously, breast cancer survivors were encouraged not to exert their upper bodies. It has since been determined that exercises such as paddling can actually be therapeutic.
Survivors in Sync have been practicing three times a week to prepare for the festival, which takes place October 24-26. Joanne is on the team as a paddler, while Angela acts as the steerswoman -- keeping the boat moving in the right direction. Like a roller coaster, dragon boat racing can be seen as another great metaphor for life. It may be tough, but with hard work and great friends, you can make it to the finish line. "It's a water sport," Angela says. "You're going to get wet."