Survivor Stories

The inspiring women of Team Survivor Northwest are the heart of our organization. These are their powerful stories of strength, resilience, and courage in the face of a cancer diagnosis.

Survivor Story: Sally

Sally Avenson counts her years in dozens. Six dozen years living. Over four dozen years delivering babies (including Dave Matthews and his wife’s twins). More than three dozen as a mother, two dozen as a breast cancer survivor, and one dozen since she became a widow. Through all the ups and downs of life, nature has been a constant – from the birch and pine trees of her childhood at summer camp in Minnesota to the picturesque peaks of Patagonia and the still, green oasis of her backyard – Sally loves the great outdoors.

It’s no surprise then, that on many Wednesdays you’ll find Sally out on the trail with Team Survivor Northwest’s Midweek Hiking program. She often drives the Seattle carpool and has joked about saving the gas reimbursements in a jar to walk them into the TSNW office as a donation. Only Sally wasn’t completely joking, and when GiveBIG came along this year, she leveled up.

“It’s not always what you do, it’s who you’re with,” she said before a hike. Heads nodded. “TSNW has helped me exercise in ways I may have never tried otherwise, and with a kickass group of women!” More nods surrounded by a knowing laughter. “People are fun and genuine. We don’t sugarcoat cancer. It’s as if the support comes organically while we’re stretching, on a break, or in between breaths. I want more women, all women survivors, to benefit the way I have, and it takes time. It takes money.” Sally pulled the carpool cash out of her pocket and indicated it was meant for the donation jar. Hearts resonated, then several more hands reached into pockets of their own and matched Sally by adding cash to the pile.

Twenty-four years ago, after a bilateral mastectomy and during six months of chemotherapy, Sally’s oncologist (and TSNW cofounder) Dr. Julie Gralow strongly encouraged Sally to join Team Survivor. Dr. Gralow didn’t stop at the referral though – she was out on the trail, swimming laps, and in between breaths literally moving with patients toward healing. This is the magic of Team Survivor Northwest, because as Sally said, it’s not always the what, it’s also the who.

Survivor Story: Damaris

Damaris Pearson was born in Panama and traveled the globe as part of a military family. She recalls her formative years spent in Germany’s big cities and later graduating from high school in the lesser-known town of Waynesville, Missouri. Fast forward several years and zip codes, and Damaris is a proud University of Washington alumni with a Master’s in Public Administration.

Damaris learned early in her career that corporate culture was not her “cup of tea,” so she pivoted to the field of education where she discovered a soul-filling connection mentoring youth in Career & Technical Education (CTE). Damaris’ face lights up as she recounts examples of students applying the curriculum she taught to real-life circumstances and succeeding! She championed financial literacy skills inside Seattle schools and throughout the community even before local districts had formally adopted them as requirements.

Damaris applies the same forward-looking posture to her personal life. Her mother had been diagnosed a year before she was, so when a woman friend at her church was selling cancer insurance, Damaris purchased it “just in case.” She ended up using it. It’s a decision she’s never regretted and a resource to which she wishes all people, especially women with family histories of cancer, were given access.

It’s been 12 years since Damaris received her first cancer diagnosis. Initially chemotherapy was more manageable than she had anticipated, but the 4-5 weeks of radiation every single weekday following was brutal. Cold, steel tables. Unforgiving, industrial machines. Staff who began as complete strangers tasked with the most intimate of care. It was all very different from the warm, collaborative environment she was used to with her students. Damaris’ body was weak, but she found emotional strength in the overwhelming support of her two sons and church family who rallied when she couldn’t.

Shortly after treatment, Damaris began adjusting the way she ate and joined TSNW’s Dragon Boating team. She also completed 3-day walks in Seattle, Portland and San Diego – more travel, more connection, more hope! The pieces were falling back into place, but this time with more intention: Damaris values nutrition and movement every day.

In February of 2022, Damaris received her second but smaller diagnosis and was able to recover faster. She saw a Facebook ad promoting TSNW’s winter snowshoeing event and signed up to participate. The trip to Snoqualmie Pass proved to be a scenic, rewarding adventure with a community who still understands. 

Today, Damaris is a volunteer leader in TSNW’s Walking Group program and invites YOU to join her at Seward Park on the 1st and 3rd Saturday mornings each month. With such great company, you might also find some extra pep in your step and zest in your heart for LIFE.

Survivor Story: nanda
“Will you take my picture? I want to show my family I’m trying new things!”

Nanda was posing like a warrior with two blades in her hands and a fierce sparkle in her eye. SNAP. FLASH. Then, a brilliant smile stretched across her face, she threw back her head and she laughed. The whole room laughed. It was her first time attending TSNW’s annual Fitness Retreat, and Nanda wanted to do it all – especially unfamiliar and lower-intensity options like Stick Fighting.

Many would not guess that just weeks before, Nanda had completed a rigorous chemotherapy treatment for DCIS and hadn’t regained full use of her left arm after the double mastectomy. Her doctor at Fred Hutch – formerly SCCA – however, could sense Nanda’s enduring optimism and knew she was ready to reclaim her life. A quick referral to TSNW and Nanda was off planning her carpool to the retreat.

The road here has been rich, and to Nanda, not coincidental. Originally from Brazil where she earned her PhD, Nanda has built an international career in Immunology. She moved to Seattle to work with an innovative start-up company that is pioneering complementary solutions to the next generation of cell therapies potentially reducing adverse events and prolonging remissions for patients. It was here, in Seattle, that Nanda began balancing her roles of long-time researcher and brand-new patient.

As a mother with deep family roots, it was natural for Nanda to offer support when her sister gave birth to a son. Nanda was teaching her sister how to breastfeed when she noticed abnormal discharge from her own nipple. Checking for signs of breast fluid is an important, but often overlooked, step that Nanda hopes more women will incorporate into their self-exams. In her case, a mammogram hadn’t revealed any tumors, and the specialized testing she knew she needed wasn’t available. She advocated for a biopsy which eventually confirmed her diagnosis, but there were no other signs. Nanda’s attunement to her body and steady collaboration with her care team were both critical in detecting the cancer before it progressed any further.

Today Nanda knows her journey with cancer is not over, but she is determined to walk it with gratitude. A type of gratitude that does not dismiss or evade the pain but also whole-heartedly invites life and possibility. Like a tool (or a warrior’s blade), Nanda expertly uses gratitude to inspire herself and those around her. Every day she finds one thing to be grateful for and one goal to accomplish. It used to be walking from the kitchen to the living room. Some days it was reading for 20 minutes or navigating sore spots so she could snuggle with her children. This weekend, she’ll be out on the water completing another TSNW Dragon Boating session. And next month… well, there really is no limit.

Survivor Story: carrie

Not even the pandemic could thwart Carrie in her quest to train for and summit Mount St. Helens with Team Survivor’s Mountain Climb Group. After training on her own for more than a year, Carrie shares the thrill of coming together with fellow survivors to achieve the goal that was 2 1/2 years in the making!

Survivor Story: Peggy

When Peggy was diagnosed with cancer, a friend told her she had a silver lining to share: Team Survivor Northwest. Follow Peggy’s journey from navigating the tough terrain of cancer treatment all the way to the top of Mount St. Helens!

Survivor Story: Susanna

Summiting Mount St. Helens

Susanna Ray shares her experience preparing for and ultimately summiting Mount St. Helens with the Team Survivor Northwest Mountain Climbers. Don’t miss Susanna’s inspiring journey from a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis to the top of one of Washington’s most iconic peaks.

Survivor Stories: Susan
TSNW member Susan Mazrui shares her incredible journey of strength, empowerment and finding herself again after cancer.
Survivor Story: Kathryn

“I never thought that breast cancer would be part of my life.” Cancer survivor Kathryn explains the role TSNW played in her healing journey.

Survivor Story: Cami
Survivor Cami shares her inspiring journey and how Team Survivor Northwest helped her rediscover her strength.
Survivor Story: Joann
TSNW member Joann was diagnosed with cancer on September 11th, 2001 at the age of 39. Five years after going through surgery, chemo, and reconstruction work, her cancer came back, and she had to endure treatment all over again. The silver lining to her recurrence was finding her Team Survivor Northwest family – with whom she literally summited mountains!
Survivor Story: Sharon

TSNW member Sharon was active in water sports her entire life. As an adult, she even got her children involved! When Sharon was 52, she was in the best shape of her life when her ovary ruptured and she got the news that she had stage 3 cancer. As she battled her diagnosis, Sharon felt worn down by her fatigue, but still continued to exercise as much as she could. When Sharon’s friend introduced her to Team Survivor, it was an immediate fit. She found a network of supportive and encouraging women who understood what she’d been through. Sharon even reconnected with her love of the water through dragonboating!

Survivor Story: Susan
“I had never really been sick, nor had anyone close to me been sick, so when I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer, I entered a completely new phase in my life experience. I was living in New Haven, CT and working at the Yale Art Gallery. I quickly found out who could rise to occasion and who couldn’t. Much to my surprise! Some family members and friends stepped up and others disappeared. My work place had 5 women going through cancer treatment and with some I forged an unbreakable bond. During my 6 months of chemo and 8 weeks of radiation my friends and colleagues made great accommodations to support me and my family with a dinner delivery chain, and head shaving party.

I found I was allergic to Adriamycin, which they simply administered intermittently with Benadryl, a drug that makes me silly and as I understand it quite entertaining. In fact, I guess I asked the oncology nurse if she hadn’t tried a round of chemo drugs, she really should; you know, so she would know what she was doing to us.

I gained 33 pounds in 6 weeks from the treatment, going to the thrift store each Saturday to buy new pants. Of course, I lost the obligatory hair on my head, eyebrows and eyelashes but wouldn’t you know it, my leg hair was just too stubborn! Needless to say, I was not a “pretty chemo patient”, you know the type you see on get well cards, the slightly gaunt runway model look with a beautiful bald head.

As an active woman, I was devastated both physically and psychologically by the treatments. I was fortunate to be part of the Yale clinical study of how exercise benefits patients during treatment. I got to be in the exercise group where we walked a min of 10,000 steps a day and recorded any additional physical activities. I hired a personal trainer, but was disgruntled as I found it harder and harder to walk on a treadmill more than 4-5 minutes. My muscle tissue had been greatly compromised by the drugs. My intestines were ripped to shreds, I developed a horrible case of plantar fasciitis and a weird chronic bout of hiccups and burbs simultaneously (I told you it wasn’t pretty!). The week after my last treatment I walked a Father’s Day 5K. It took almost two hours. But I was determined, there really was nowhere, but up from here!

Serendipitously in the 6th week of radiation my dream job fell in to my lap. It was a chance to start a new department at the Seattle Art Museum. I flew out for an interview with my tiny peach fuzz artsy hair style. The next thing I knew I was building a new life in the PNW.

After walking a 5K in West Seattle, a young volunteer gave me a TSNW brochure. Little did I know it would forever change my life. I immediately contacted the Operations Manager, Monica Strasen, and signed up for the annual retreat; my first TSNW experience. I carpooled with 3 Dragon Boaters, Jean Vye, Betty Woito and Ann Miller who to this day are still dear friends who constantly inspire me!

Joining in 2007, I went on to try, and chicken out of, many of the programs TSNW had to offer. Within two years after treatment, I had built my strength back up enough to run (ok, ankle shuffle) my first half marathon. I’ve gone on to do 1-2 half marathons a year since. Given the chance to give back, through fundraising I accepted the challenge to climb Mt Adams and all I can say is. “Sometimes you’ve got to sleep with the dog to know its got fleas”.

In addition, I found that triathlons really light my fire! I get to swim, run and ride my bike!

Team Survivor, its staff and coaches have not only given me the opportunity to try different activities but it has also built up my courage to see myself as an athlete, marathoner, a climber, a dragon boater, a triathlete. It has taught me to stay with it, to try harder when I can and slow down when I want to quit. It has also rubbed off on those around me. My husband now does half marathons and triathlons and my friends join me for 5Ks.

TSNW has become an integral part of my life and in large part has defined a significant part of who I am today; a survivor who lives life to its fullest!”

Survivor Story: Nina
“Don’t you just love serendipity? Me too, because that’s how I found TSNW. In 1995, after being diagnosed with Stage 2 invasive lobular carcinoma, I was on a mission to recruit survivors to participate in the annual Shore Run to benefit “The Hutch.” What I found was a group of brave, resilient, powerful women who would take me under their wing and teach me to Dragon Boat, swim, bike, run and “Tri” – all with enthusiastic teammates and devoted coaches. I joined to heal myself… I’m still here to help heal others. Thank you, Team Survivor, for teaching me how to fly.”
Survivor Story: CAROL

“On Oct 1, 2015, I was prepped for surgery expecting to have a hysterectomy since I had the BRCA 1 gene and was at high risk for cancer. I discovered the gene the summer after my younger sister came down with breast cancer and tested positive for it.  In addition to my sister and I, our mother had also died of complications from breast cancer. So to say I was at high risk is an understatement.

When I woke up from my surgery I found a room full of family and friends and the surgeon telling me I had advanced cancer and so began my journey of chemotherapy, which included abdominal chemo and being twisted into all sorts of different positions to get the agent to as many abdominal areas as possible.  After six months, I was very weak and that’s when I saw a brochure for a Team Survivor Northwest Active Women Healthy Women (now known as Move to Heal) exercise class being held near me in Edmonds.  I began attending the class after getting permission from my medical team and saw rapid improvement under the watchful eye of the instructor, Toshiko Aramaki, who was herself a survivor.  She then told me of a program called Live Strong and joining that brought further recovery and strength.

Utilizing the chance to get supervised exercise made me begin to feel like my old self again and was so motivating that I began to pass on what I was learning to my friends who started to look to me as their coach.  Simultaneously I was chosen for a nutrition and exercise experimental study through an alliance that SCCA has with the University of Arizona.  It was great to finally feel that I had power to change my circumstances and find hope, even if the hope is just to feel healthy in this moment. I am grateful that I found Team Survivor Northwest and that my instructor, Toshiko, is in my life weekly and looking out after me in ways I cannot do for myself.”

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