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Cancer survivor raises funds through gymnastics event

Sep 01, 2011 09:49AM, Published by J. Chambless, Categories: Health Family Features

Sue Weldon, Pink Invitational founder, stands with her daughter, Corinne, during the first day of the 2011 event. Corinne said that she is proud of her mother’s efforts to help other women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Gallery: Unite For Her [4 Images] Click any image to expand.

(Editor's note: This article first appeared in our Fall 2011 edition.)

By Steve Hoffman
Staff Writer
Breast cancer survivors like Sue Weldon must walk a difficult balance beam of emotions.
The gymnastics instructor understands the struggles and challenges of facing the disease and is dedicated to supporting women with breast cancer. Having overcome the disease, Weldon and others like her are grateful for their good health. They are also well aware that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and each year another 40,000 people, mostly women, will die from the disease. 
“Breast cancer is a disease that has a lot of sadness to it,” Weldon admitted. But she is determined to share her story and to help others. That’s why she was motivated to found the Pink Invitational and Unite For Her, a non-profit organization. The Pink Invitational is a sanctioned gymnastics meet that raises funds and awareness about breast cancer. Unite For Her provides support for various breast cancer programs throughout the year.
The 2011 Pink Invitational took place between Friday, February 25 and Sunday, February 27. Forty-eight gymnastics teams came from five different states to take part in the three-day event, which is presented by AJS Pancott Gymnastics National Training Center in West Chester. More than 1,500 gymnasts take part in the competition, and dozens of volunteers help make the event possible.
In the first two years of the Pink Invitational alone, more than $180,000 had been raised to support women with breast cancer. In the third year, approximately $160,000 was raised, including $45,000 from local fundraisers that 25 teams organized.
“I feel incredibly blessed and grateful,” explained Weldon. “You have all these people who want to help. I would never think of my breast cancer as a blessing, but here I am and I’ve been given an incredible gift.”
According to Weldon, it’s “a natural match” to pair gymnastics with breast cancer awareness because the physically strong gymnasts need to be empowered with the knowledge of how to protect their health.
Weldon was diagnosed with breast cancer following a routine annual checkup in 2004. The diagnosis came as a shock. She was an active gymnastics instructor. She was too young, she thought, to consider breast cancer as a threat to her health.
“I was 39 years old. I was aware of my environment. I felt so healthy,” she said. “I was too young and I was too healthy {to have breast cancer}.”
When Weldon remembers that time now, she understands that she missed signs that she wasn’t taking care of herself the way that she should have. Her family had three small children at the time, and she was also taking care of her ailing mother. She wasn’t eating well and she wasn’t sleeping enough.
“Now, I know how the cancer sneaked into my life,” she said.
Within two weeks of the diagnosis, Weldon underwent successful surgery.
“The whole thing was hard to believe,” she said. “It was very humbling. But God led me and I knew that I was going to be okay.”
She took a year off from coaching gymnastics at AJS Pancott Gymnastics while she focused on getting well. In addition to traditional methods of treatment recommended by her doctors, she also pursued some alternative methods of healing. She underwent 36 acupuncture treatments, practiced yoga, sought massage therapy and really began carefully scrutinizing the food that she was putting into her body.
“The acupuncture really made a huge difference in my life,” she said. “I would go for twelve treatments, and then take two months off. Go for twelve treatments, and then take two months off.”
Weldon endured the side-effects of the cancer treatments with the various forms of alternative healing.
“Chemotherapy is very hard on the system,” she explained.
But slowly Weldon built up her strength and reclaimed her vitality and self-confidence. Her determination to fully overcome breast cancer grew.
She remembers meeting a woman who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. By this time, Weldon was already well on the road to recovery. She wanted to offer words of encouragement that the other woman could also beat breast cancer.
“I told her, ‘Don’t worry. You are going to get through this.’”
But when Weldon explained the various forms of complimentary treatments that helped her so much, the woman told her that she would never be able to afford the acupuncture, yoga, and massage therapy treatments.
“Insurance doesn’t cover that,” Weldon explained. “I was fortunate that I was able to pay for those things. But why should I be special? Why should I be the one who can do this when other women can’t?”
She knew that she wanted to help other women as they fought their own battles against breast cancer.
Groups promoting breast cancer awareness have done an incredible job of getting the word out about the cause. The color pink is inexorably tied to the cause. Weldon wondered why more of an effort wasn’t being put into promoting the benefits of alternative treatments like acupuncture, yoga, and massage therapies.
The seeds of inspiration were being planted.
“When you see a gap, you want to make a difference because that is going to help the next family,” she explained.
When she did return to coaching gymnastics, she felt compelled to share what she had learned about the dangers of breast cancer with others—including her pupils. She came up with the idea of holding a large gymnastics meet each year that would bring together competitors from all over the area. It would be one part athletic competition and one part educational experience.
She approached Steve and Louise Pancott, the owners of the gymnastics facility where she taught.
“She had a vision for all this,” recalled Steve Pancott on the first day of this year’s Pink Invitational. “She wanted to have a competition that would raise awareness about breast cancer.”
According to Pancott, there were a number of smaller gymnastics events that raised awareness about breast cancer, but the Pink Invitational very quickly developed into one of the biggest competitions in the country.
“It just keeps growing and growing. We’ve had to turn away teams because we just couldn’t accept any more. It’s a total outpouring of support by the gymnastics community. That’s our community. It’s a great cause,” Pancott said.
Weldon agreed. “The gymnastics community was very supportive,” she said.
When the first Pink Invitational was held in 2009, approximately 1,000 gymnasts took part in the event. The next year, the number of participants reached 1,600, which was just about all that organizers of the event could manage during a three-day competition. This year approximately that same number of gymnasts took part in the competition.
As the number of competitors grew, so did the fundraising successes. Last year alone, the Pink Invitational raised about $120,000 for breast cancer programs. This year that number increased to $160,000. According to Weldon, a growing number of teams took the “Above and Beyond Challenge” where they hold individual fundraisers throughout the year to raise money in advance of the Pink Invitational.
“These funds support the various outreaches that we do,” Weldon said. “We want to help in any way that we can. We have this mission of educating young women as well.”
At the Pink Invitational, there are several different exhibitors who have valuable information to offer the girls and young women.
Representatives from had a stand where information was available, as did a local hospital. There was a testing booth where girls could receive information about the importance of making good decisions about what food they put in and what products they put on their bodies.
“Skin is your largest organ. What you put on your skin is just as important as what you put in your body,” Weldon explained.
Education is a big component of what Unite For Her does year-round. “We find effective ways to educate and bring awareness to young women and girls about breast health care, nutrition, organic products and healthy lifestyle choices,” Weldon said.
The organization also works with local hospitals and the medical community on several wellness days. Attendees meet with nutrition, massage, yoga, and acupuncture professionals.
Additionally, Unite For Her offered twelve grants this year to gymnasts from around the country whose lives have been touched by breast cancer—in most cases the girls’ mothers had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Weldon emphasized that everyone involved with the Unite For Her non-profit is a volunteer.
Julie Hillhouse is one of those volunteers. She serves on a diverse board of directors that enables Unite For Her to accomplish its stated goal of supporting as many programs as possible. The results of those efforts are obvious at the Pink Invitational, the primary fund-raising activity.
“We doubled from year one to year two,” Hillhouse explained.
The organizers all admit to being a little stunned when they see the 1,600 gymnasts all wearing the pink leotards that are symbolic of the unity in the fight against breast cancer.
Said Pancott, “I have a parents’ organization that donates a lot of time. They sell raffle tickets. They help us unload all the equipment and set up for this meet. But when we see all the smiles on the gymnasts’ faces, it’s all worth it. It’s a great cause and a wonderful experience.”
Weldon agreed, commenting that the gymnasts themselves have transformed the Pink Invitational. 
“They have taken this over and made it their own,” she said. “There is such an incredible energy here. They are empowered. It’s really an event of unity.”
She added, “I know how much help I got from my family, my church, my friends. I just feel really blessed. I want to help others.”
Standing in the middle of the controlled chaos that is a gymnastics meet the size of the Pink Invitational, she says:
“Is all this worth it? Absolutely.”
If the Pink Invitational organizers ever need a reminder about why the event is so important, all they have to do is talk to Alex Lovrinic, a gymnast at Pancott. She pays careful attention to her diet thanks in part to what she has learned from the educational outreach at the Pink Invitational.
“I try to eat more natural foods. I don’t eat fast food, ever,” explained the Unionville High School ninth-grader. “I try to eat a good breakfast every day. I’ll have a fruit and vegetable at lunch. I drink a lot of milk. A friend of mine and I had a bet where we would go a month without drinking sodas. Now I try not to drink them at all.”
The benefits of the careful dietary decisions have been plentiful for Lovrinic.
“I feel a lot more energetic. I feel a lot healthier,” she said.
Lovrinic began competing in gymnastics at the age of four and she immediately fell in love with the sport.
“I like everything about it,” she said. “I love the thrill of doing it.”
Lovrinic has a deeper personal connection to the cause of the Pink Invitational. Her mother, Faye, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, the same year as Weldon. She is proud to be involved with the Pink Invitational because she understands how the disease impacts families.
“It’s amazing. It’s great being able to help raise the amount of money that has been raised. It means a lot that we could all help. It’s so cool,” she said.
Lovrinic said that she makes a point to tell others about what her family and her coach went through so that they understand the importance of breast cancer awareness.
“I definitely tell them my mom’s story, my coach’s story, so that they can live a long life, reach their potential and be as healthy as they can be,” she said.
Like Lovrinic, Weldon’s daughter, Corrine, knows that many other families have been impacted by breast cancer. That fact makes her eager to help others.
“It’s incredible what they {the organizers} did,” she said. “This event is so huge after just three years. It’s incredible. Everything looks really good. It’s such a good environment with good energy.”
Corrine is 14 and is now old enough to understand what her family went through following her mother’s diagnosis. She believes that her mother sets a very good example by trying to help other families that are going through the experience. 
“She’s always so happy to give back,” Corrine said. “It’s amazing. She shows strong leadership and that’s something that I want to show as an adult.”

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