Written by Crystal Ward Kent
Nancy Ryan thought she had done everything right. She had regular mammograms, she checked her breasts monthly, and she had her annual physical. So, she was in shock when she received a breast cancer diagnosis in 1989. “I had lobular cancer, which is often not seen on mammograms,” she explains. “Instead of the cancer forming as a lump, it forms in ribbon-like structures that run through the breast, which makes it harder to identify. I was completely blindsided as I had no indication that anything was developing.”
Ryan’s diagnosis made the breast cancer crisis personal, not just because of its impact on her body, but also because of all the questions it triggered. “I had comprehensive treatment, but even as it was happening, I realized that there was so much that I didn’t know,” she says. “As I talked with other women, I learned that they had lots of questions, too–and not just women facing cancer, but women who were concerned about preventing breast cancer.”
Things crystallized for Ryan after she attended a breast cancer conference in Chicago in 1991 where she learned of the National Breast Cancer Coalition. “I had heard of the conference and wanted to go,” she says. “I’d read articles where female leaders were pushing for more funding and research for breast cancer. They were also making the case that the lack of these things was partly political. This intrigued me and I had to learn more.”
Ryan attended the conference and came away galvanized. At the meeting, members vowed to gather enough signatures to pressure Congress for the much-needed breast cancer funding and research. She returned to New Hampshire having pledged to get 870 signatures for the cause—she wound up getting 4,000 and delivered them to Washington D.C.
During the signature drive, Ryan took to the media to spread the word. As a result, she was now constantly hearing from women who wanted to join the fight against breast cancer. Some were survivors, some had lost family members, others were concerned about what their daughters might face. Their stories were compelling, poignant and fierce, and motivated Ryan to do more.
“I invited 10 New Hampshire women who had reached out to me to meet me for dinner in Concord,” she recalls. “Some of them were survivors and some had other connections to the disease, but we all had the same mindset. Within minutes, we agreed to form the New Hampshire Breast Cancer Coalition. Our goal would be to help local women get the care, support and answers that they need. We were going to assist these women any way that we could, and we were going to be advocates for all women with the disease.”
Right Place, Right Time
Prior to her diagnosis, Ryan had worked for an accounting firm, but her degree was in sociology. She had just left her accounting job, and was pondering doing work in her field, when the bout with breast cancer forced her to put her life on hold. Now, life was offering her another change of direction—a chance to helm this new coalition and help women in need.
“I truly was in the right place at the right time,” she says. “I was available, and thanks to my husband’s job, I didn’t need to work. I could afford to volunteer. The position also meant a lot to me personally, as it was an opportunity to move past my diagnosis. I could help other women while they were going through this illness, and I could do my best to end breast cancer for all women.”
Thanks to the work of Ryan and many others—all volunteers—the New Hampshire Breast Cancer Coalition celebrated its 27th anniversary this year. They still operate out of a spare room in Ryan’s home, but they have achieved much. When the coalition first formed, its directors realized that the first challenge was to provide a clearinghouse for breast cancer information. “There was no one place for women to go and get all of their questions answered,” explains Ryan. “You lost valuable time calling here and going there trying to get needed information. We immediately worked to create a comprehensive guide, which for many years was available as a hard copy. Now, this information is on our website, where it is easily accessible to all women.”
The Coalition also reached out to women undergoing breast cancer in more personal ways, creating tote bags with items they knew these women would find useful, such as journals, lotion and scarves. These were distributed to hundreds of women through hospitals and oncologists.
In 2007, the Coalition embarked on its most ambitious, and most critical, effort yet, as it began offering financial assistance to women impacted by the disease. “For some time, we had received calls from women needing financial assistance but we did not have a means of helping them,” says Ryan. “After a lot of planning, we launched the Support Services Fund, which is now our primary focus. We help women who are struggling financially to pay medical bills while undergoing treatment. The first year the fund existed we helped seven women; we now help more than 100 women each year.”
Ryan, who is breast cancer free since 1989, battled ovarian cancer in 1998, but is now once again, cancer-free. Looking forward, she plans to keep working with the Coalition in fulfilling its goals. “We want to continue to offer our Support Services Fund, and continue working with the National Breast Cancer Coalition. The National Coalition is a tremendous resource and has great influence. Both myself and the members of the New Hampshire Coalition are completely committed to continuing the fight against breast cancer. We won’t rest until there is no longer a need for us to exist.”
To learn more, or to make a donation, please visit nhbcc.org.
NH Breast Cancer Statistics: The Battle Goes On
1) 1,330: The estimated number of new breast cancer cases in New Hampshire in 2019.
2) 180: The estimated number of deaths from breast cancer in New Hampshire in 2019.
Source: American Cancer Society, Cancer Facts & Figures, 2019
Nancy is the essence of what we call phenomenal. She is a fearless advocator for women. In my lifetime I have never met anyone as driven as she. We are all fortunate to have Nancy in the state of NH.