20 Years of Rethink: Sarah’s Impact

Sarah O’Regan taught me that it’s ok to believe in unicorns. Even though Rethink has an evidence-based approach to breast cancer treatment, care and advocacy and follows clinical trial data closely. Even though we work hard to create support for the unique needs of young women with breast cancer. Even though we are especially focused on creating urgency about metastatic breast cancer. There are unicorns in the breast cancer space. Those who defy all odds of a stage 4 diagnosis. The outliers who respond better than expected to treatment. And we need to celebrate them.

The “celebration of Sarah” that sparked Boobyball is what inspired the next phase of Rethink. It’s when we really took engagement of young people to the next level, both in terms of raising awareness of the cause amongst young people and making fundraising accessible for them. Sarah represents the power that a young woman with breast cancer’s story can have in igniting an outpouring of support from friends and peers. The resulting impact has been transformative for Rethink and the cause itself.

But to be honest, over the years, Sarah and I rarely talk about her cancer. Our lunches, coffees and Instagram messages are filled with talk of marriage, kids, having kids in sports, our own fitness efforts (hers way more intense and successful), family, friends, and careers. And year after year, we have our annual “what are you going to wear to Boobyball?” banter too. We haven’t shared that type of text exchange for the second year in a row as the pandemic still has events of that huge scale on pause.

Sarah is the reason that Boobyball came to be. The event was launched in 2002 by Sarah’s best friend since kindergarten who wanted to lift Sarah’s spirits during treatment. It rapidly grew into one of Toronto’s most coveted events and ultimately one held annually in cities across Canada. It’s raised millions for Rethink’s mission work over the years and has engaged hundreds of thousands of young people in the cause. And it all started with Sarah’s story.

In 2002, Sarah was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer at age 23. She’d grown up in Belleville, Ontario and graduated from Western University with a degree in kinesiology. She had no family history of breast cancer and was an incredibly fit person. So fit, in fact, that after university she moved to Vancouver to compete on the Canadian National Triathlon team. But while she was enjoying those beautiful West Coast runs, she began to find it difficult to breath and also noticed frequent pain in her chest. She thought it was asthma, and she went to her doctor to get to the bottom of it. After a slew of tests, she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.

Because her cancer was so advanced, Sarah had little time to even process the news. She didn’t even really know what breast cancer was when she was suddenly rushed into surgery and chemotherapy within days of her diagnosis. Sarah often uses the word “surreal” to describe those days. Her girlfriends from Toronto were shocked and dismayed and took turns flying out to see her on weekends. They wanted to do something.

It was Sarah’s childhood bestie, Amanda Blakely, as well as Ashleigh Dempster and a crew of Sarah’s close friends, who pulled together a plan: a party to support Sarah that would also raise funds for the cause. Sarah flew to Toronto after a tough chemotherapy session. She was not feeling great and sort of dreaded seeing people with her bald head. But she was touched by her friends’ efforts and headed over with them not exactly sure what to expect. She thought maybe a hundred people tops. She walked into a full-on fundraiser, lined up around the block and packed inside with 600 friends and family all there to show their support – and Boobyball was born!

I met Sarah the following year in early 2003. This time at Rethink is for sure quite a blur. Alison Gordon was on her first maternity leave and I was now expecting myself. Oh, the days of growing an entrepreneurial charity organization and growing young families too. During a particularly chaotic week, Sarah had called and left a couple urgent messages – the excited kind of urgent though. She wanted to meet. She wanted to get involved.

Sarah and Amanda ended up getting very involved. As they learned more about Rethink and all our hopes and dreams for building Rethink’s movement, they wanted Rethink to be the beneficiary. Amanda became our events manager for a while before launching her own business. Amanda and Ashleigh grew the event each year as volunteers, but soon it was unwieldy. They saw the golden opportunity for Rethink to run with it and asked if we wanted to take it on as our flagship fundraiser. We were so excited. It was an immediate yes!

The significant funds raised for Rethink over so many years has been an essential part of our growth and maturity into a lasting charity. It’s a big part of why today we are able to continually evolve and offer the breadth and depth of needed support, education and advocacy for young people with breast cancer.

Sarah’s cancer experience has not been linear. It came back after initial treatment with metastasis to her bone and brain. Once again, Sarah responded to treatment, and she is NED. She not only married the love of her life, but they have three beautiful children. She’s a powerhouse leader in healthcare. She works out most mornings, she even runs marathons. And she’s a very good friend. I love nothing more than to see my friend Sarah and her husband Jake posing on the pink carpet each year and then stepping right into the media scrum. When that’s done, she takes the stage with microphone in hand or, as the event became too big, projected via video above the crowd on a jumbo screen. As much as her story has inspired so many guests, I think the event has bolstered her too.

So, here’s to you, Sarah. You’re a hugely important person who inspired the evolution from our awareness phase to that of engagement. We started by making young people aware that breast cancer wasn’t just a cause for their grandmothers and you were instrumental in rallying young people to support our efforts. Forever grateful. Forever forward. — MJ DeCoteau

MJ DeCoteau, Founder + Executive Director of Rethink Breast Cancer. At 22, after losing her mother to metastatic breast cancer, MJ was hard-pressed to find relevant information that was not scary and overwhelming about her own risk factors. She quickly realized that young people were in the dark about breast cancer simply because they weren’t being targeted by awareness campaigns and other efforts.

By 2001, she brought together a group of innovative, energetic, and creative minds to found Rethink Breast Cancer, putting young people concerned about and affected by the disease in the spotlight for the very first time. Today, MJ leads Rethink’s small but dynamic team of staff and volunteers dedicated to creating resources, campaigns, events, research, and advocacy initiatives that help young people live better and live longer.

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