Momma of the Mamma

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Eleven years ago, Jan Hill came to Austin with a horse, a dog and a 10×12-foot U-Haul.

She was moving from her native St. Louis, eager to explore a city she’d heard so much about. For Hill, Austin represented a new beginning, a chance to experience a place al- together different and prove her fortitude. But while Hill was moving to Austin, she was also moving away from cancer.

“I had been diagnosed and gone through treatment, and now that I had beaten it, I wanted a fresh start,” she recalls. Though she knew no one in Austin, Hill was undaunted. She made a home here and began making a life. But just a year after her move, doctors discovered a spot on Hill’s CT scan. Cancer had returned, and faced with another diagnosis so close to the first, she felt defeated.

“After treatment, my prognosis was good,” says the local mortgage lender. “But when you’ve dealt with two so close, your automatic thought is when’s the next one going to come?”

2-4Fearful and emotionally drained, Hill turned to a group called team Survivor. An organization national in scope, team Survivor’s Austin chapter helps women cancer survivors to reclaim their bodies post-treatment through fitness. The goal: prepare members for a triathlon. Since joining the group, Hill has completed 10 triathlons.

“Team Survivor really helped me to take back aspects of my life. When I had my last cancer 10 years ago, I thought I was on my way out in my late 40s. What team Survivor did was possibly save my life – and certainly gave me a sense of well-being and fitting in.”

The group also brought the ravaging effects of breast cancer into stark relief. Hill says even before joining team Survivor, she knew women with breast cancer. Now, of course, her circle of cancer survivor friends is far bigger.

“Through the years, I’ve seen it recur and I’ve watched women I know living their lives very sick for long periods of time.” in a way, she says, the never-ending cycle of medication and treatment reminded her of those living with the burden of AIDS. But whereas the AIDS activist community has established over the years a continuum of care for those with that disease, Hill recognized that not as much support existed for those coping with breast cancer. So she decided to do something about it.

Together with representatives of local cancer organizations, Hill began taking a hard look at breast cancer activism in Austin. The question was how could the community generate the kind of substantial support that HIV/AIDS was already getting. What they found was that the two fundraisers that generated the most resources for AIDS in Central Texas were the Hill Country Ride for AIDS and party-with-a-purpose group the Octopus Club.

Hill approached HCRA director David Smith about organizing a ride for breast cancer and Smith readily agreed. The logistics of actually creating the ride – getting multiple organizations on board and setting up a successful framework – took several years. But this October, the inaugural Texas Mamma Jamma Ride will bring hundreds of cyclists to Georgetown’s Reunion Ranch to raise money and hope for the thousands of central Texans affected by breast cancer.

Ten nonprofit organizations in Austin will share the funds raised by the Mamma Jamma (a play on the word mammogram), from the Breast Cancer Resource Center, which provides education and support to patients, to Wonders and Worries, a group that helps children with a seriously ill parent gain an age-appropriate understanding of the illness.

The statistics are staggering. About one-in-eight American women will develop invasive breast cancer at some point in their life, according to the American Cancer Society. This year alone, nearly 200,000 new cases will be diagnosed nationwide. And while early detection and improved treatment have led to a decline in death rates, breast cancer remains one of the biggest killers of women.

Though treatment and survival rates for breast cancer patients have improved, major hurdles still remain for those battling the disease. Smith says the overarching goal of the ride is clear. “We want to change the odds for women and make it so that every person diagnosed with breast cancer ends up a survivor, until there’s a cure.”

The official fundraising goal for the inaugural ride is $400,000. But Hill has another number – much higher in mind. At the ride kickoff party in May, she announced that she had written that number down on a small piece of paper, which she’s keeping in her bra next to her heart. She’ll reveal the number at the ride.

While the Mamma Jamma is in full swing under Smith’s direction, Hill is steering the development of another organization. Mirrored after the Octopus Club, which hosts a series of parties to raise emergency services money for AIDS patients, the B Club will do the same for those living with breast cancer. Hill says the mentorship and advice she’s received from Octopus Club founder and local activist Lew Aldridge has been invaluable. In the last year, B club has raised $12,000 – a figure Hill hopes to grow exponentially in the year ahead as the organization gears up for more events.

The diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer are often emotional and physical body blows for women. And that’s where the funds raised through B Club can help. “Imagine getting that diagnosis and then you’re expected to go home and deal with your children, go back to your job, start treatment, continue to function in your job and hold it all together,” says Hill. “We see more and more middle-class women forced to go back to work to feed their children rather than go to treatment. What these funds do is give those women time, a couple months maybe. It’s the emergency services that they need to help make it.”

These days, Hill is hard at work recruiting riders as a “coach” for the Mamma Jamma and organizing the B Club. She’s even using her company, Jan Hill Mortgage to help spread the world. She says one thing she’s learned about Austin through the years is that the city’s residents appreciate and patron those who contribute to the community.

As a lesbian, Hill says she has been overwhelmed by the amount of support the ride has garnered from the gay and lesbian community. “So many gay men have said to me they were surprised by how involved and in the middle of the AIDS fight the lesbian community was and still is, despite the fact that it isn’t affecting us directly. And my response is ‘of course we are.’ Now what I feel is the gay men coming back and saying to us ‘this may not be our illness but it’s your illness and you’ve been there for us, now we want to be there for you.’ It’s really been incredible.”

By early August, more than 200 riders had signed up for the ride. Hill credits Smith with the success that the ride already is, and will undoubtedly become. “David has this tremendous recipe for doing this and doing it right, and we’re benefiting from 10 years of his experience.”

Hill hopes the Mamma Jamma becomes a model event for other communities. “Since we began this journey, people have continually said to me, ‘I want to do something. How can I help?’ this notion of being able to do something, to be an activist, that’s the need that I think the bike ride and the B Club will help fulfill for so many who have been touched by this but felt helpless.”

Just as it has for Hill, the ride takes on added significance for Smith each day. Since he committed to organizing the event years ago, a number of his own friends have been diagnosed with breast cancer. “Because of those diagnoses, and meeting so many other survivors over this period, it’s made it so much more real for me. I feel this tremendous urgency now. …this ride is so important and we see that every day in the profound gratitude we get from survivors.”

For Hill, living through the last decade cancer-free has been a huge blessing, one she doesn’t take lightly. “I’m so thankful for the chance I’ve been given,” she says. “Austin has given me the confidence to know that whatever happens in my life, I will be ok. These efforts are my attempt to create a legacy that will make Austin a better place for a subset of our citizens to live.”

Date: October 10

Ride: Routes include 10, 25, 45, 65 and 100 miles.

Beneficiaries: Visit the website for the list of the 10 benefiting organizations

Web Site: www.mammajammaride.org

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