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Easing the burden of breast cancer

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Web extra: CNN Hero Debbie Cantwell
  • Debbie Cantwell is helping young breast cancer patients through her Pink Daisy Project
  • The nonprofit hopes to take away some of the chaos that these women are dealing with
  • Cantwell: "It's just the things that you would do to help out a friend, help out a sister"

Bellevue, Washington (CNN) -- There are more than 250,000 women living in the United States who were diagnosed with breast cancer before their 41st birthdays.

Many have received valuable support from the Pink Daisy Project during their treatment.

Debbie Cantwell is a breast cancer survivor who started the Pink Daisy Project in 2008. The nonprofit tries to provide a boost to young breast cancer patients, whether by sending them gift cards or by giving them a little help around the house.

CNN's Kathleen Toner recently spoke with Cantwell about her efforts.

Kathleen Toner: How did the Pink Daisy Project get started?

Debbie Cantwell: I was meeting a lot of women online and through support groups that were in really difficult situations. ... That really wrenched my heart.

I just didn't have the money to do the things I wanted to do for (these) girls. So I decided I would try to raise some money, and I asked friends and family to help out. And people gave me five, 10, 20 dollars here and there. I decided I wanted to start a nonprofit organization so I could raise money on a larger scale and really do something for these girls.

At first, I just sent small gifts, little things to brighten their day: a pair of pretty pajamas, a book, magazine, nail polish. And then I realized that the financial need was so great and that it was really stressful for women trying to focus on healing and worried about who's going to help them with their kids or having to get to work every day. I wanted to be able to help them in more meaningful ways.

There were single moms that were still having to work through chemo because they needed the food on the table. Families making do with less money. Moms not able to work at all or as much. And suddenly, medical bills start piling up, and the medications are very expensive.

A lot of women have insurance, but even some insurance companies require a co-pay for each visit. When you're going through radiation, and you're going 37, 40 times, you're paying a co-pay ... every single time. It's very expensive.

Toner: What sorts of things do you do to help the women?

Cantwell: We're able to do small things, but they do mean a lot. We'll put groceries on the table for a month. We'll have someone come clean their house, which is a small thing but really makes a big difference if you're sick and you really don't have the energy to do anything around your house. And to be stuck at home laying in bed or sitting on the couch, (having) to look at a dirty house for months and months on end ... it's stressful. It's just that stress of living in chaos that I like to be able to take away.

I just want to ease the burden. I feel like they're my sisters. And if I lived near them, I would come over to their house and watch their kids. I would bring them a casserole. I would do their laundry. You know, it's just the things that you would do to help out a friend, help out a sister. And every young woman under 45 with breast cancer I consider my sister. And I honestly would do anything to help them out.

Toner: Why do you concentrate your efforts on women under 45?

Cantwell: I was a young mother, working when I was diagnosed. It's a juggling act that the elder population doesn't struggle with as much. They are more set in life.

Younger breast cancer is more aggressive and often caught later. And other aid organizations are broader, and there are less available choices for younger women who don't qualify for Medicaid or Social Security.

Toner: Where does your nonprofit's name come from?

Cantwell: The organization is named the Pink Daisy Project because my Grandma Daisy had breast cancer. She struggled for many years, and she fought really hard. She was incredibly brave. ... (I) never heard her complain once.

Grandma Daisy and I were close, and she's always a part of everything I do. When I was struggling through breast cancer, I felt Grandma's spirit with me. And so the word 'Daisy,' it's a happy, peaceful, pretty flower. It's just cheerful. And I wanted to honor my grandma by doing this.

Read the full story on CNN Hero Debbie Cantwell:
A helping hand for young breast cancer patients