Nancy Brown leads a program she knows inside and out. She graduated from it. Me too.

I met Nancy 10 years ago at the Maryland Farms Y over coffee as she interviewed me for inclusion in their renowned After Breast Cancer (ABC) program. She sat and listened intently as I walked through my journey with her.

We’ve also graced the runway as ABC models in the Y’s Annual Heroes in Heels Fashion event held in October. This October 24th, a new group of survivor models will strut their stuff in beautiful fashions from Dillard’s in Liberty Hall at the Factory in Franklin. Talk about empowerment! Beauty, brains, and brawn kicking the life out of this insidious, cowardly disease with a powerful walk down the runway filling everyone’s heart with hope and courage as each survivor’s story is shared with the community. Such a powerful, joyous evening. Join the celebration! You can buy tickets here!

After surgery, chemo, and radiation, this was a big moment for the Enright women at the Heroes in Heels event.

Nancy Brown has led the Y’s ABC program (now serving 6 Middle Tennessee counties) since 2009. She started in the position as she celebrated her 8th year as a survivor.

I recently invited her to coffee to hear about how she ended up running the very program she credits with “getting her life back after cancer”.

We started talking about her journey and I learned that this journalism major wound her way through the land of corporate communications with years of success, but little satisfaction.

The summer when her kids were 6 & 9, she decided to leave the freelance grind, take stock for about 6 months, and gear up again once the new year began for a job search. Her plans changed abruptly when she was diagnosed with breast cancer that fall in November.

She endured treatment including the hair loss, fatigue, weight gain, and the reconfiguring of her body to maximize her chances of survival. Nancy heard about the ABC program and signed up. Originally, the After Breast Cancer program was a 16 week 1:1 support program for survivors that included free sessions with a Pink Ribbon Certified YMCA personal fitness trainer, nutrition counseling, and monthly meetings with other current participants and alumnae of the program to continue to learn about their new normal and living the most healthy way possible. The services and programming remain, but now includes an additional key component of companionship.

Nancy loved everything about the program, but it’s isolation and ending. She knew spending time with other survivors as well as providing ways to continue to learn about staying healthy after the initial 16 weeks would strengthen the experience for every participant for a lifetime. The ABC program today is built around Nancy’s vision of pulling together the force women bring to each other when facing similar circumstances. ABC now serves participants by putting them into a cohort calling on the power of these special women brought together to face beating cancer through support, comfort, healing, and fighting alongside each other every step of the way.

She describes the power of the cohort and the lasting effect the ABC program has on each person, “This is a nontraditional support group that faces the unexpected with courage and grace. I will not tell you that it is an easy process or always works out the way everyone hopes. I have witnessed deep grief in a cohort when their membership lessens because of the disease. It is heartbreaking and empowering at the same time.”

Here’s a glimpse at the power of the ABC program:

Nancy knows ABC strengthens these women. It touches all facets of the mind, body, and spirit of each individual ABC participant and each individual ABC cohort. And the program continues to empower Nancy in other ways.

She tells me how difficult those intake interviews once were with ABC applicants. “Listening to the story of each of these women just made me relive my experience. There was a time I thought it would be best if I quit. I couldn’t handle it. I felt I was moving backwards from rather than towards complete rest and healing. Then, it hit me that the process of listening became cathartic, even healing to me. And then I saw the hope in a woman’s eyes when I told them how long I had been a survivor. I knew this was where I was needed most – at the Y, leading the ABC program.”

“So really’, she continues, ‘this life’s work found me. It allows me to give back or pay it forward to thank all of the people who have helped me over my entire life. Sometimes I pinch myself that I get to do this every day.”

Nancy pauses then looks at me and begins, “We’ve served over 1500 survivors in 6 counties in the Middle Tennessee area. And we will do more. We must. Cancer doesn’t care who you are, how you are living your life, or who depends on you. And ABC must be there to help as many survivors as possible feel less isolated and more powerful during the journey.”

We talk about hearing the call to serve and answering it. She lights up and says, “Jump in with both feet. Don’t look back, Don’t second guess. If you fail at first, pick yourself up and go after it again. And always remember that no matter how boundless your energies may be take time for yourself. Always take time for yourself or you will burn out.”

We closed our conversation with Nancy telling me she is proud of the impact ABC has had on so many survivors and their families. She knows there is much more to be done and enjoys collaborating with others to create innovative programming, “No successful program rests upon the shoulders of just one person. My success is due to the previous leaders of ABC. The foundation they left me let me dream and try new things. Your calling to serve is never about going alone. You must have others with you to successfully do the work you are destined to do.”

Thanks, Nancy. Together, with you and the ABC program, my family healed and got healthy. We laugh now about the time that Caroline took some of my hair running wildly to Casey’s room where a blood curdling scream erupted with Casey yelling “what is that? and Caroline proudly saying, ‘It’s Mom’s hair!” and the time when in a hurry to get ready during a road trip taken to support Jim at a marathon event, Casey asked if I had brought along my blow dryer and I looked at her and explained that currently, I was using a paper towel to dry my head. So many stories. So many tears. We learned so much about ourselves and each other during that time. We are truly blessed by the ways things turned out for us.

Through it, I learned what fighting looks like, what courage can do, how important family is, and what it means the first time your hair begins to fall out as the chemo begins and your husband wipes away your tears, holds you, and tells you that at that moment you have never looked more beautiful.

2017 Heroes in Heels benefitting the YMCA’s After Breast Cancer program. Hope to see you there.