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Cancer survivor turns to advocacy

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While battling breast cancer five years ago, Liesl Illanes Meyers, an Albuquerque mother of two, was dismayed to notice that some needed services weren’t easily accessible to her and others going through treatment.

There was no one around to help her navigate through the labyrinthine process of paperwork, appointments and information dissemination at Presbyterian Hospital, where she received care.

Liesl Illanes Meyers will receive the Spirit of Hope award. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Liesl Illanes Meyers will receive the Spirit of Hope award. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

And there was no free access to a place just for those battling cancer to exercise and regain their strength.

“There are areas I thought could be improved in cancer care in New Mexico,” said Meyers, 59. “I’d had a hard time navigating the system on my own. If you haven’t done it before you don’t have a clue.”

Because of her advocacy efforts since her diagnosis, Presbyterian’s Cancer Center now has five nurse navigators. And those who want to work out at The Cancer Rehabilitation Program at the Presbyterian Healthplex can receive scholarships, thanks to a fund Meyers set up and has raised money for.

She will be recognized for these efforts with the Spirit of Hope award at the Celebration of Hope Luncheon, the annual fundraiser for the Nancy Floyd Haworth Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises money for programs designed to help women dealing with breast cancer. TV personalities Giuliana and Bill Rancic will be the keynote speakers at the luncheon April 12.

“Liesl’s a person who is really generous in spirit and generous in her efforts, and is really someone who can take a situation that most of us would view as very problematic, and turn it into something that helps others,” said Dr. Dava Gerard, a surgeon who administers Presbyterian’s cancer program and who nominated Meyers for the award after seeing her advocacy at work.

During a recent interview shortly after she learned she was to be awarded, Meyers talked about her battle with breast cancer.

It began when she went in for her 15th annual mammogram in 2008. “I got a call back; it turns out it was cancer,” she recalled. She went to California for a mastectomy, then returned to New Mexico for chemotherapy, which lasted from January 2009 into that spring.

Besides having the support of her husband and two daughters, her younger daughter’s speech and debate team at Albuquerque Academy brought over meals on a near-daily basis. But that wasn’t the case for others.

“There were so many people helping me through the process,” she said, but “I saw people that didn’t have that support.”

So she decided to do something about it: She encouraged the head of the Cancer Center at Presbyterian Hospital to develop a patient navigator program.

“One of the challenges that Liesl faced was at the time she had a cancer diagnosis, there were no good navigation services available. She came to speak to me, she wrote us a letter,” Gerard said. “It was the spirit of that letter that helped us create a robust nurse navigator program.”

More than 1,000 people who come to the center have benefitted from the navigator program, which now has five nurses, Gerard said.

Meyers’ second act of advocacy was to create a scholarship fund, tapping her friends to contribute to it, that allows those with breast cancer to get their costs covered if they want to go to the cancer rehab program at Presbyterian’s Healthplex, located on San Antonio NE near Interstate 25.

Priced at $180 and open to anyone with cancer, the program includes 30 visits to the gym and a workout routine designed individually to help its clients regain the level of fitness they were at before the diagnosis, according to Meyers.

“The chemo was the hardest thing I went through,” she said. During that time period, she went to the Healthplex and worked out with a trainer.

“It took me six months to get through the program,” said Meyers. Once she completed it, trainers there told her she was as fit as she had been before her diagnosis.

But not everyone can afford the cost. “A lot of people can’t even afford their medications,” Meyers said, let alone that added cost of fitness training.

A pearl necklace Liesl Illanes Meyers sells to raise money for the fund she started, “Pearls of Hope.” Funds are used to give scholarships to women to cover the cost of an exercise plan at the Cancer Rehabilitation Program at the Presbyterian Healthplex. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

A pearl necklace Liesl Illanes Meyers sells to raise money for the fund she started, “Pearls of Hope.” Funds are used to give scholarships to women to cover the cost of an exercise plan at the Cancer Rehabilitation Program at the Presbyterian Healthplex. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

So she reached out to about three dozen of her friends who agreed to chip in $180, and she set up a fund with Presbyterian Health Care Foundation, a 501(c)3. “I got 40 people to sponsor one patient (each). Some people sponsored two,” she said.

When sponsorship money ran low, Meyers decided to raise funds by buying pearl jewelry at a wholesale price, reselling it for double what she paid for it, then donating the money to the program.

Her fundraising program, “Pearls of Hope,” has raised more than $10,000 and has benefited 117 people with cancer, according the foundation.

Meyers was the unanimous pick for the award. After being nominated by Gerard, a seven-person panel of people unaffiliated with the foundation went over the nominations, and in the second week of March decided to award Meyers.

“I called her to let her know that we had chosen her and she was thrilled,” said Dr. Diana Weber, a general and breast surgeon who is the president of the foundation’s board. “She had no idea that she had been up for this award.”

Besides honoring Meyers, the foundation will also give grants to the American Cancer Society, Casa Esperanza, the New Mexico Cancer Center Foundation, People Living Through Cancer, and several other organizations.

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