Finding Hope and Faith through Fire

Every October, the pink ribbons come out in full force in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Yet, in the conversations during the month, one aspect of the disease is often overlooked. “Breast Cancer Awareness Month automatically makes people think about prevention, early detection and the physical struggles of cancer,” says Beth Wilmes, Executive Director of Faith Through Fire. “What takes a back seat is the mental health of the 3.8 million breast cancer survivors, when we know that cancer is just as much an emotional battle as a physical one.”

Faith Through Fire, whose purpose is to help individuals heal from the trauma of breast cancer and improve their quality of life during and after treatment, was founded by Wilmes after her own battle with breast cancer at the age of 35. “It was not something I was expecting at that point in my life – I had three small children – and I experienced all of it: a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation,” she says. “We made the best of it, but I was surprised at the level of fear and anxiety and how little my emotional health was addressed in my medical care plan. It’s sort of like being dropped into a warzone without any gear.”

Wilmes says the mental battle can continue long after treatment and into remission. “You think to yourself that if you are able to beat the cancer, everything will be okay and you’ll return to life as normal. But about the one-year mark, you realize that the person you were before doesn’t exist and you begin to search for who you are now.”

Resisting her desire for complete self-reliance, Wilmes realized that it was only by opening up to the help and support of others that she was able to navigate her experience and thrive despite it. “But I had to do the work and seek out the resources I needed.”

Faith Through Fire, says Wilmes, aims to provide the resources survivors need to live with hope, from the day of diagnosis through survivorship. YouthBridge was recently introduced to the organization through a passionate donor “who believes in our potential,” she says. “It was an incredibly refreshing experience to meet with YouthBridge; they got our vision right away.”

As a founder, Wilmes says she was delighted to find an ally that shares her view on the importance of flexibility, collaboration and innovation in a nonprofit. YouthBridge has committed to helping identify opportunities for Faith Through Fire in the community and among donor clients, and “Barbara has been a great sounding board for strategic moves we are considering.”

Photo: Faith Through Fire

In its first five years, Faith Through Fire has offered a number of programs and resources, including a podcast, hosted by Wilmes and Faith Through Fire Vice President Sarah Hall, also a young survivor, in which the two talk candidly about their experiences. It also recently opened a Respite House at Innsbrook Resort in Warren County, Missouri. But what has been its most impactful effort, says Wilmes, is its Fortify Peer Mentorship Program. “This has become a central focus for us and may be the best way to funnel all of our other resources in the future,” she says.

Through the program, newly diagnosed breast cancer patients are paired up with survivors in remission who are close in age and had been in the same stage of cancer. The communications are first by text messages, but may develop into phone calls and friendships. “Some going through cancer treatment are not capable of developing new relationships – it becomes one more burden – so we take our cues from mentees on what support they need and how much of it,” says Wilmes.

“Mostly, it’s about feeling connected to someone who gets it, who’s heard the same discouraging news and feared for their life. It’s also about providing a safe space and assuring patients that everything they’re feeling is normal and they can make it through it all, as well.”

If you would like to donate or have any questions about this organization, please contact Allison McDonald.