BELLINGHAM - Breast cancer can be hard on patients and their families emotionally and physically. But what keeps many from attempting to live normally is the cost of expensive treatment that may not be covered by insurance.
That's where Team Julia steps in.
To help families live as normally as possible, the nonprofit helps with medical expenses so families can free up money in their budgets for things like sports team equipment and extracurriculars.
The charity was started in 2010 to collect donations to help the family of Julia Pohlman, a local mom and cancer patient.
"You don't just get cancer, your whole family gets it," she said. "You still want your kids to live like kids."
A year ago, the family decided to turn Team Julia into a nonprofit so they could help other local families who might otherwise wait in long lines for funding from national organizations.
"There's a lot of help out there if you're in poverty," Pohlman said. "If you're in the middle class, cancer is expensive."
A 2009 review by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that per-patient lifetime cost estimates for breast cancer ranged from $20,000 to $100,000, though the numbers change depending on stage of diagnosis and the age of the patient.
In addition to assisting families, Team Julia helps fund cancer research. Part of the organization's mission reads, "The best way to help people afflicted with cancer is to cure it."
Pohlman, now 43, was still nursing her youngest son, then 18 months old, when she learned that a lump doctors thought might be a clogged milk duct was likely something more serious.
"They sent me in for an ultrasound and the technician said, 'I need to get the radiologist,'" Pohlman said. "They showed me some hot spots and said it was cancer."
That was the Friday of Mother's Day weekend.
"The radiologist said, 'Usually, I'd let your doctor tell you this, but I'm your age, and I wanted you to know," Pohlman said. "It had spread to other areas of my chest cavity; you could see it in areas of my liver."
Pohlman went home not knowing if she had a week to live.
"A few days later, we got a call from the doctor saying, 'We're admitting you to the hospital right now,'" she said.
Pohlman had stage IV breast cancer, which had metastasized in her liver and vertebrae.
The family had just moved to Virginia and didn't have a network of friends or a church yet. Neighbors who barely knew Mike and Julia took care of their four kids while the two stayed at the hospital and waited for scans.
"The entire community rallied around our family," Pohlman said. "A woman who owned a cleaning business cleaned while our kids were at school. She was in line buying cleaning supplies one day and someone behind her in line was buying food for me, both complete strangers, and both doing it for me."
Doctors placed Pohlman on Adriamycin, a strong chemotherapy. She had a mastectomy on the right side, and an operation to scrape the cancer out of her vertebrae.
"I had to wear a neck brace for six months and couldn't lift more than 5 pounds," Pohlman said. "I had a baby. I couldn't give him a bath, couldn't pick him up."
Pohlman's mother flew from Bellingham to Virginia to help out for six months. Her sister flew back from London and her aunt came out as well.
The family moved to Bellingham shortly after, when Mike got a job as senior pastor at Immanuel Bible Church. Pohlman grew up in Seattle and went to Western Washington University, so the move meant she and Mike would be closer to home.
Pohlman first transferred her care to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where a doctor recommended she immediately have her ovaries removed, as the type of breast cancer she has feeds off estrogen. After the surgery, she looked at transferring to PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, where she'd be able to stay closer to home.
"Having cancer is a full time job that you pay for," she said. "You can't really have a job, because when they say you need to have a blood transfusion, you need to go."
Pohlman chose to move up to the St. Joseph cancer center, where she continues to battle the disease.
Coping with Cancer
At first it was hard for Pohlman's kids, now 13, 12, 10 and 5, to digest the news their mom had cancer.
When she was diagnosed four years ago, everyone was busy talking about H1N1, also known as swine flu.
"My daughter said, 'Oh, thank God. I thought you had swine flu,'" Pohlman said.
After the children understood what cancer was, they asked questions like, "Are you going to die?"
"We explained that everyone is going to die," Pohlman said. "Now they talk about it, tell their friends, and ask questions when they need to."
Still, there are moments when being a mom with cancer takes its toll.
"I have my crisis moments of thinking I won't be here to raise my kids," Pohlman said. "That's a mental challenge."
Living in fear of death is a choice, Pohlman said. She tries to remember the words uttered to her years ago by a fellow cancer patient at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
"This woman was decked out in everything Harley Davidson. She goes, 'We're not dying from cancer, we're living with it,'" Pohlman said. "Could I lie in bed all day? Yes, but that's not living with cancer, that's dying from it."
Faith is also a very important part of the family's life and has helped them cope.
"Without faith, I don't know how we would've gotten through this," she said.
The unsung heroes in cancer care are the nurses that care for patients, sometimes for years, Pohlman said.
"When I was diagnosed in Virginia, the doctor said, 'This is your new normal. You're going to be here a lot. We're going to be like a family to you, and you're never going to feel the same,'" Pohlman said.
For now, the mom continues trying to live her life as normally as possible. She's currently busy helping raise money for Team Julia. For more information, visit teamjulia.org.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
The American Cancer Society is celebrating 100 years of fighting cancer this year. Locally, PeaceHealth St. Joseph opened it 35,000-square-foot Cancer Center in Bellingham late last year. The Bellingham Herald asked local cancer survivors and volunteers to share their stories this month to highlight the progress that has been made in fighting these diseases.
Stories in this series will be published throughout October.
The closest office of the American Cancer Society is in Everett, at 3120 McDougall Ave., Suite 100. Call 425-741-8949 for more information. Or go online to cancer.org.
Relay for Life, the signature fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, takes place in three locations in Whatcom County from May to July: Western Washington University, Lynden and downtown Bellingham. For more information or to sign up, go to relayforlife.org.
Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-756-2803 or firstname.lastname@example.org.