In 1997, Joy Blondheim, a member of Montgomery’s Jewish community, was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy with reconstruction, eight months of chemotherapy, “the best friends, the best family, the best husband — and the best medical insurance,” she said.
In all, the ordeal cost roughly $1 million. “If I didn’t have medical insurance I don’t know what I would have done.”
But in Alabama there are “thousands of women in that situation who don’t have that” to rely on. Once Blondheim’s battle against cancer was over, “we decided we had to give back.” And thus was born the Joy to Life Foundation, which is now 11 years old and is holding its signature 5-kilometer fundraiser, the Walk of Life, in Montgomery on April 21.
The idea was simple — to help women who were not as fortunate. Medicaid pays for mammograms for women over 50, but “there is a gap” for women under 50. As Blondheim was diagnosed in her 40s, she decided the foundation would concentrate on providing mammograms to women in their 40s, in the interest of improving survival rates through early detection. Women who are younger than 40 are seen on a case-by-case basis, but they are hoping to extend the program below age 40 in general.
Initially in the three-county Montgomery area, the foundation now provides services in 29 counties — basically from Montgomery south to the Mobile area. The foundation partners with the Alabama Department of Public Health’s Breast and Cervical Cancer program.
That partnership is “beshert,” Blondheim said, because if a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, how can the foundation raise enough money per woman for treatment? Instead, women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are guaranteed treatment by the department.
“We had the idea, we thought we could do it, and the breast and cervical program came to us and said ‘we can make it work’,” she said.
But now, the foundation is working in “emergency” mode. Because of greater awareness, there is “an onslaught of women who are having their mammograms,” Blondheim said. “That’s a good thing.”
However, because of that the department has run out of federal funding for the year.
Blondheim explained that each mammogram costs the foundation about $100, but the women also have to have an office visit for additional screenings, which is where the department’s funding comes in. That funding has run out.
For the rest of the budget year, the foundation is stepping in so no woman with symptoms would have to be delayed in her treatment. “Everything is being taken care of by us,” she said.
The foundation and department estimate that 42 lives will be saved by that decision.
“Because of all the money we are spending, it is more critical that we get an all-time high at our signature event,” she said.
The foundation has other fundraising initiatives that are helping. One of Alabama’s specialty license plates benefits the foundation. And now, an unusual tool to raise money and awareness is being touted by the foundation in some markets across the state — bright pink 96-gallon trash containers. “In the darkest of times, you always need to keep your sense of humor,” she said.
Last year there were almost 5000 participants in the Walk of Life, raising over $200,000. This year, they are hoping for 6,000. The event “is a big celebration of life,” because that is the foundation’s emphasis. She takes inspiration from the word L’Chaim. “It’s always ‘to life’.”
The run and walk is a USATF-certified course, and this year optional chip timing will be offered, as cash prizes will be awarded to the top three male and female finishers. The plan is to expand the event next year to include a 10-kilometer race.
A post-race party will be held at Riverfront Park, featuring a 9-foot by 12-foot screen that will have a slideshow and tributes to honor and remember “the ones we are walking for. The Arizona Skyhawks paratroopers will parachute in, and the Trimm Band will perform.
Breast cancer survivors are invited to a pink Survivor’s Tent. There will be a group photo and butterfly release at 10:15 a.m.
Participants can walk or run as individuals or as teams. There is also a kids dash at 9:45 a.m. for ages 3 to 8. Sponsored by McDonald’s, the dash will be started by Ronald McDonald, and will be about 75 yards across the grassy area at the amphitheater.
Early-bird registration ended March 31. Online registration is available through April 18 at joytolife.org, with late registration at the Union Train Shed on April 20 and 21.
The 5-kilometer race is $35 through April 18, $40 at the door. The kid’s dash is $15 through April 18, $20 at the door.
The goal this year is to raise at least $250,000. Since the foundation began, close to 5500 mammograms have been provided, with 25 women diagnosed and successfully treated.
“I don’t take it lightly and I thank God every day,” Blondheim says of her experience. “So far I’m one of the very lucky ones. It took a long time for cancer to be on the back burner for me.”
A co-founder of the foundation, husband Dickie “is very passionate as well, as you can imagine. When you’re touched by cancer, it’s life-changing for everybody.”