Carmen Harrell is a woman who gets things done.
Each year, whether she’s tired, feeling overextended or there’s a pandemic raging, she has her annual mammogram. So it was that she got a call on January 14, 2021, that the tiny mass in her left breast, no bigger than the head of a pin, was malignant. She had cancer.
“I didn’t get scared,” says the Bridgeport mother of three, grandmother of five and great-grandmother of one. “I said, “Alright. Where do we go from here?’”
The next few months were a whirlwind. Suddenly, she had an oncologist. She went through surgery and six weeks of radiation. “This is the way I am – for six weeks at 8 a.m., Monday through Friday, I was there,” she said. “I would get there at 7:30 and sit in the car and read or pray and then I would go in with a smile on my face.”
While Carmen was sure she’d survive cancer, tiny doubts started to creep into her thinking. Radiation left the 55-year-old beautician exhausted and unable to work as she normally did. She worried how her family, including a teenage daughter living at home, would be able to make ends meet on just her former husband’s paycheck.
Enter Pink Aid, the Westport-based organization providing compassionate support and rapid emergency financial assistance to patients in treatment. With lightning speed they were on the case, ultimately providing Stop & Shop gift cards and other beneficial care and covering Carmen’s rent – twice.
Having proven its abilities to help women locally for more than a decade, Pink Aid moved to a national stage in 2022 with its Pink Purse initiative, providing help of all kinds to women across America within 48 hours of receiving an application. Launched in 30 states and counting, the program enlists nurse navigators to help assess a person’s needs and make sure she gets speedy meaningful assistance.
While other organizations fund crucial cancer research, Pink Aid provides funds for treatment, recovery and wellness, diagnostic testing, outreach and education and essential household expenses. More than 20,000 breast cancer patients and their families have benefitted.
“The expenses of cancer are just astronomical. While we don’t help with medical bills, we do help ease the financial burden with gas and food cards,” says Amy Gross, one of the group’s four co-founders along with Amy Katz, Andrew Mitchell-Namdar and Renée Mandis.
More than 2,000 breast cancer patients have received more than $1.8 million in emergency aid since Pink Purse debuted in 2015. The pandemic gave the team time to beef up its website and plan for the national campaign, which has meant more than 50 applications a month on top of the 30 it administers in Connecticut.
"Through Pink Aid's Pink Purse and grant programs we have funded $8.4 million to breast cancer patients who are financially insecure", says Katz. “Now that our Pink Purse is national and in 30 states we are receiving recognition and interest from national sponsors too.
“We went from granting funds to two organizations in 2011 to 47 today"
Aside from two part-time employees, the effort is run entirely by volunteers. Nurse navigators across the country work to link patients to everything from counseling and education to fittings for the Pink Purse-funded wigs and lymphedema sleeves that help them stay comfortable and confident.
In addition Pink Aid provides the Warrior Connection, linking patients to peer mentors and hosting a “Celebration of Life” fashion show each year at Mitchell’s.
The multi-pronged approach to compassion and care has not gone unnoticed among the group’s recipients.
“Everything was hitting us at one time. Anything they could do, they did. And what they couldn’t do? They would know of someone else who could help.” says Carmen, who has made it a mission to help others now following in her footsteps. “I used to sit back sometimes and say, ‘Why me?’ Now I tell myself to stay happy, stay blessed and stay thankful. It could have gone another way.”