Breast Cancer Survivor Fights Back Through Volunteerism

photo of Sue Sgambato

For Sue Sgambato, volunteering is not just a way to give back -- it's a way to take back what she's lost to cancer.

Sgambato, 51, raised in New York and currently living in Mapleville, Rhode Island, has lost several members of her family to cancer, including her mother and a grandmother to breast cancer. Through her work as a volunteer with the American Cancer Society, she's been able to channel that grief to make a positive difference in people's lives.

Her mother died exactly 2 years before Sgambato, then 36, found a lump in her breast that turned out to be an aggressive form of breast cancer. Because of her family history, Sgambato opted to have the breast removed. When her doctor noticed thickening in her other breast, she decided to have it removed as well. During this period, she also had a total hysterectomy, after tests showed abnormalities in her left ovary.

"I just didn't want to risk it," she says, "And I have never regretted the surgery for even one day."

After the surgery and rounds of chemo, which Sgambato describes as "a blur -- somehow I put one foot in front of the other," she says she needed a way to channel all of her feelings of anger towards cancer, especially her feelings of grief and loss over her mother's 13 year battle with breast cancer. So she started volunteering with the American Cancer Society.

"I wanted to be with other women who were going through treatment and facing similar struggles," she recalls. "And I wanted to honor my mother's memory. The American Cancer Society offered me a way to do that."

Finding her voice

Sgambato was interested in volunteering with the American Cancer Society's Reach to Recovery program – a perfect fit. The program matches specially-trained breast cancer survivors with newly diagnosed breast cancer patients to provide emotional support and guidance.

"When you're diagnosed with cancer, you feel like your whole body has turned against you. Through Reach to Recovery, I felt like I was really helping someone through that trauma," she says.

During this time, a friend of hers, a reporter with Channel 10 in Providence, Rhode Island, asked her if she was interested in being profiled for a segment about breast cancer, and she agreed. Weeks later, someone from the Society called and asked her to speak at a Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event. Making Strides Against Breast Cancer is a non-competitive walk to raise funds and support to help fight breast cancer and provide hope to people facing the disease.

"You know it's strange to say, but it's almost as if when I lost my mom, I found my voice. Because I was speaking from the heart, I found I had no fear talking about very personal issues," Sgambato recalls.

In 2002, she went to Celebration on the Hill in Washington, DC. Thousands of people descended on the National Mall at the foot of the Capitol Building in a day-long event to remember loved ones lost and celebrate those who fight on. The event was also a call to action to the nation's elected officials to make cancer a priority.

"It was sort of a fluke that I went – another volunteer couldn't go, so I went in her place. I've never thought of myself as political, but as I stood there among 10,000 luminaria in front of the Capitol Building, I realized that as long as I have a voice, I'm going to speak for those who lost their lives to this disease."

And indeed she has. Sgambato has pushed the House Finance committee for higher cigarette taxes and was at the forefront of Rhode Island's successful campaign to defeat S.1955, legislation that would have eliminated insurance coverage for mammograms and other cancer tests.

Says a former staffer, "I'm not sure Sue knows how to say the word 'no' when it comes to an advocacy effort. She has made phone calls, written letters, and made personal visits to her elected officials on the state and federal level on numerous occasions."

Finding a purpose

Every time I volunteer with the American Cancer Society -- whether I'm holding a cancer patient's hand at an outpatient clinic or rallying a team for Relay For Life -- I feel like I'm fighting back. Volunteering turns all my feelings of grief and powerlessness towards cancer into real power.

Sue Sgambato

In addition to her advocacy work, Sgambato is a longtime Relay For Life participant, often attending several events per year. In 2004, she and her husband actually decided to renew their vows on their wedding anniversary at a Relay event in Burrillville, RI.

"I had a cake and a veil – the whole bit. It felt like the right thing to do since for half our married life my husband had shared me with ACS," she joked.

What keeps Sgambato motivated?

"There are days when I feel overwhelmed. What keeps me going is that I'm part of huge group of volunteers at the American Cancer Society. I draw strength from knowing that I am not fighting this battle alone."

Sgambato feels strongly that being a volunteer fulfills her life's purpose. And in 2008, she was recognized for her dedication with an American Cancer Society St. George Award for distinguished service.

"Every time I volunteer with the American Cancer Society -- whether I'm holding a cancer patient's hand at an outpatient clinic or rallying a team for Relay For Life -- I feel like I'm fighting back. Volunteering turns all my feelings of grief and powerlessness towards cancer into real power."

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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