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Often, it’s gradual. First a strand or two. Then, there might be a clump on the pillow or in your hairbrush. Your scalp might feel tender. Before you know it, your hair might all be gone. This is just one of many harsh realities for patients undergoing chemotherapy.
However, it’s also one of the many projects that Women Working Wonders has taken on.
W3, which operates through the Sparrow Foundation, focuses exclusively on raising money to improve women’s health across mid-Michigan. Stella Cash, Sparrow Health System’s vice president of development and strategic partnerships, works directly with W3. She said that keeping one’s hair during treatment, especially for women, can be a needed morale booster.
“A breast cancer survivor was talking to W3 about it and she said, ‘When you have your hair, you’re just normal and people treat you that way, but when you lose your hair, people treat you differently,’” Cash said. “I think we’re all guilty of that. We don’t intend to, we just do it.”
That’s why last June, W3’s Dapper Dads Challenge and Fashion Show raised nearly $600,000 for the Food and Drug Administration-approved treatment of ice cap therapy. The therapy involves putting on an incredibly cold cap before, during and after treatment, to prevent the scalp’s absorption of cancer-fighting drugs that can cause hair loss. Cash said 66 percent of the women who used the treatment retained at least some hair.
Founded in 2000 by Virginia Hilbert, the roughly 30-member group has flourished since its start. W3 has been involved in numerous projects, like providing more form-fitting hospital gowns for women undergoing cancer treatment at Sparrow Hospital, the purchase of updated cancer-fighting technology and installation of bereavement rooms for parents who lost their children.
One of W3’s first projects was implementing SANE rooms, for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners. These rooms ensure privacy for the victims of sexual assault or abuse, while also preserving the evidence of their cases.
Deb Atkinson is a former chairwoman of W3 and has an endowment fund within the group named after her for her efforts. She said the group’s involvement in women’s health only expanded from those projects.
“Then we moved onto two more in the emergency rooms that were designed early to treat women’s health-related emergencies,” Atkinson said. “Those were so easy to raise money for, because all you had to tell was what you were doing.”
Cash attributes some of the group’s success to its unconventional setup.
“No policies, no procedures, no bylaws, no attendance requirements, no financial requirements,” Cash said. “You join us because you are passionate about women’s health in our community and you choose something to do and then you do it.”
Regular membership normally hovers around 30 people because of these policies.
“We’ll have people who come and go. We’ll have someone that can’t come for six months, we don’t care. There’s no dues. But if we would need to call on that person, we can always call on them,” Cash said. “So, you have a woman who works who has children. Well they can’t take on a big project, but they can take on a little piece.”
Those little contributing pieces are what make bigger things possible. One such project is W3’s Kaleidoscope project, designed to educate and inspire women about their own health.
The current chairwoman, Janet Freund, has taken to calling W3 the “committee of yes” because of its can-do outlook.
“It is, because Stella brings things to us, and we just go, ‘Yes! We’ll do that. We’ll fund that. We’ll take care of that,” Freund said.
Cash’s role is something of a liaison between Sparrow and W3. She frequently is the first to bring issues to the members’ attention, though she’s not the only source.
“A lot of the time, caregivers bring them to us. Sometimes it’s the Sparrow leadership. Sometimes, W3 thinks them up, and we just do it,” Cash said.
W3 is also responsible for donating $1 million for a brand-new Lansing landmark: the courtyard in front of Sparrow Hospital’s Herbert-Herman Cancer Center. This includes its heated pavement, landscaping, lighting and its 20-foot glass and bronze sculpture, by artist Herb Babcock.
And though the donation of a courtyard might not seem like much in the way of improving women’s health, Cash begs to differ.
“If you’re having chemo, you’re here for three, four, five, six hours — especially if you’re going to have the ice cap therapy. Think about being able to go out here and just sit and soak up some sunshine. And the walks are all heated. So, not only in the sunshine, but they’ll be able to go out here in the winter,” Cash said. “Sixty-eight percent of the newly diagnosed patients that we see are women, so this is where we need to be. There’s no doubt about it.”
Another of W3’s former chairwomen, Patti Barnas, said she is often pleasantly surprised at the group’s growing ambition.
“For the fundraising for this, originally Stella thought we should do $500,000. Deb Atkinson, one of our other former chairs, didn’t like the sound of that and she said a million,” Barnas said. “Up until then we had been doing $250,000 — that was our largest. But seeing this through, and being able to see our name out here, contributing to the beautiful piece of art, it means a lot to know that we’re going to help so many more people.”
The group meets for a lunch every third Thursday of the month and is open to all interested women — except of course Cash’s husband, Jerry, who is an honorary member.
“Anybody is welcome to be a part of this group. It doesn’t matter if you have money or if you don’t. We don’t want anyone who comes with a hidden agenda, that’s our only criteria. And we want people that focus on women’s health,” Cash said.