Story and Photography by Michelle Brosco Christian
You shouldn't just survive after cancer, but thrive-live each day to its fullest. That's the lesson cancer survivors, or others who have battled life-threatening diseases, learn from their struggles, says La Plata resident Roberta Kieliger. And she should know. Back in 1995 Kieliger was diagnosed with cancer. Several years later, determined to help others diagnosed with breast cancer she formed the support group, "Sisters at Heart." The group quickly morphed into a local cancer education awareness powerhouse.
"I wasn't sure what we'd be doing and I wasn't sure I really wanted to do this," she says, speaking of 'Sisters at Heart, but I thought, 'How could I not?'"
The group, based at the Richard R. Clark Senior Center in La Plata, meets monthly at 11:30 a.m., and frequently gathers off-site (Kieliger was planning a bowling event for the upcoming meeting).
Sisters at Heart helped five-time cancer survivor, Eileen Fogarty, make new friends when she moved to La Plata to be near her daughter's family. Now Fogarty helps with the group's outreach at community events educating the public about the value of cancer screenings.
"If one person hears our message it's worth doing," she says, explaining that at one event she met a young woman whose mother had recently died of breast cancer, yet she still hadn't had a mammogram.
This sentiment-saving even one woman's life- motivates Kieliger, too. Last year alone, she participated in more than 20 events to help inform women about the disease. The group has set-up informative displays at BJ's in Waldorf, at Relay for Life, at Civista's Paint the Park Pink, and at many College of Southern Maryland events.
Kieliger, a networking whiz, teamed up with the College of Southern Maryland's (CSM) Women's Volleyball team last October for the educational fundraiser "Dig Pink." The non-profit group Side-Out Foundation sponsors the country-wide event that raised more than $1 million last year for breast cancer research.
Nila Straka, associate head volleyball coach at CSM, who also works for Side-Out, invited Kieliger's group to the Dig Pink events. Straka, herself, a 42 months breast cancer survivor commends her friend's "willingness to keep giving and sharing. Every time I see her she's smiling. Kieliger had Stage 2 breast cancer and she's still here-and that gives someone like me a lot of hope-back then treatment wasn't as sophisticated."
Kieliger praises the college volleyball players for being "so positive…they are promoting awareness at such an early age. I'm 74 and we never talked about breasts in the (19)40s. So these young girls will not be lax in what they need to be doing [for prevention and screening]."
Others who know Kieliger well praise her. Tina Anderson, Civista's marketing specialist, met Kieliger several years ago when they worked together on a Civista-sponsored Relay for Life reception. "She's very involved; it's like her full time job-but she doesn't get paid for it!" says Anderson. "She's very passionate about breast cancer [education]."
Kieliger, herself, is amazed that at her energy, considering her own ongoing health issues. She knows what motivates her to do just one more task, when many others would likely call it quits: The hundreds of women, every single day, who are diagnosed with breast cancer.
"You're talking to these women and realizing what they're going through and you realize they need the support," she said. "They end up helping you, too. Once we started the group I felt we should be out there. Once you're out there and talking with people it mushrooms; people tell you about their mother, aunt or sister [with breast cancer] and you can understand what they're going through."
Kieliger is also the local contact for the Look Good…Feel Better program sponsored by the American Cancer Society, which teaches beauty techniques to women undergoing cancer treatment. She's also working with the College of Southern Maryland and others on an educational display to be presented on a large wall at the mall outside of Kohl's. She's excited about an educational opportunity with a local car wash in Waldorf.
Kieliger is collecting breast cancer survivors' stories for a book, "Portraits of Hope," which she will self-publish. "People need to hear you can have cancer, and yes, it can be tough, but there is a bright side to it," she says. "A lot of women think it's a new lease on life…their stories are remarkable.
And Kieliger story is no less than remarkable. She found a need in her community-to spread the good news that breast cancer is survivable, and early detection is important. She also knows, firsthand, that any woman who has lived with this disease never wants another person to experience it. Kieliger puts it best: "If our presence promotes one person to get a mammogram or exam it's worth it."
Sisters at Heart Online
Roberta Kieliger and her daughter created a website (http://charlescountybc.blogspot.com) to provide one place where those who are newly diagnosed, or survivors, may find lists of services available in the area, links to other informational sites, and a list of upcoming events.
Kieliger writes on her blog: "Survivors in Charles County are passionate when it comes to newly diagnosed women….It doesn't matter to the group where you decide to have your surgery; everyone is welcome. These services are local and can make your journey easier.
"There is a special bond between survivors; they've been there and understand the concerns and challenges you face. There are two breast cancer survivor groups in Charles County. The Pink Ladies, established in 2002; and Sisters at Heart, established in 2007.
"My particular passion is awareness…. I talk with a lot of survivors as well as the general public who are not aware of services available to residents of Charles County."