20 Years of Rethink: Tasha’s Impact

I’m a bit behind writing this very important blog about Tasha Westerman, who is the inspiration for our evolution into support and building community for young people with breast cancer. The delay in putting my fingers to keypad was due to some unexpected advocacy Rethink had to do regarding neoadjuvant Perjeta, an anti-HER2 treatment that can help those with aggressive HER2 positive breast cancer hear the words “we don’t see any cancer cells” on the post-surgery pathology report.

Tasha would understand this delay as she’s been treated twice for aggressive HER2 positive breast cancer. She’s a huge HER2 advocate, having put herself up on the big screen for our very first documentary ever made called About Her. Tasha is also someone who time and time again had to learn that tough lessons about plans changing. And she’s a huge planner. At least she was when I first met her over 14 years ago. Given what she’s been through in that time frame, I should really check in and see if she still even self identifies as a planner.

Tasha reached out to Rethink in about 2007 when she was recovering from her first diagnosis. She had a two-year-old son and she was building her career in people services (HR) at a tech company in Calgary. During our first phone call, I remember us bonding over both having grown up in Saskatchewan. It’s always a good icebreaker when a T.O. gal is fielding a call from out west. We also both had little ones – her son Talyn was 2 and my Annie was 4. Tasha was keen to know more about some of the support programs Rethink had launched in Toronto. Truthfully, she was keen to access these niche support programs because as a young woman with breast cancer in Calgary, she couldn’t find any age-appropriate support or information that felt like a good fit. This was before Zoom-like platforms were a thing. Rethink had been piloting and growing some extra in-person support programs in Toronto and a telephone support service too. But nothing truly national yet in the support space. We were learning about support and its best practices. We were seeing the hugely positive effects on those we were reaching. But we needed to scale. Along came the force that is Tasha.

I need to pause. In writing this and trying to think back (and cheat by looking back in old files!) to remember what happened when, it’s unbelievable what Tasha has been able to do for Rethink given what she had going on in her personal life at the time.

Tasha wasn’t just a wife, a mom, and a best friend with career demands and breast cancer. Her husband had a malignant brain tumour and her best friend had terminal cancer. Talk about facing fears of your own mortality. Tasha had an aggressive cancer herself and the two closest people in her life were stage four. They would sometimes be at the hospital together – Ryan getting a scan, Tasha an injection to keep her hormones shut down. And a busy two-year-old to care for and careers too.

Tasha was an early adopter of blogging. Her writing, mostly to keep friends and family in the loop, did an excellent job to educate readers on her experience with HER2 positive breast cancer – detailing the treatment pathway for HER2 positive breast cancer and the rollercoaster impact of the side-effects from her heavy treatments. She documented all this against the backdrop of the life of a young family and career.

To say Tasha is a “doer” is an understatement. Despite all she had going on that year, our conversations with her did lead to her becoming the chair of our Calgary committee, literally helping with local programs end to end – from fundraising to program planning, execution, including outreach to all the cancer centres and program evaluation. Tasha became our local media spokesperson too. She used every interview opportunity that Boobyball media promo brought her way to talk about the unique support needs of young women with breast cancer. Tasha exuded passion about the benefits of peer support and therapy to better cope with cancer as a young person.

So, this young woman who reached out because she was interested in accessing support herself ended up collaborating with us to fill the void she saw in support services for young women in Calgary. Maybe Tasha took on so much as her way to cope with the constant unknowns of cancer. At the time, she was very vocal about how rewarding it’s been to help others — to be able to gather young women with breast cancer in a space where they could learn and heal together gave her energy.

Tasha did more than help young women with breast cancer in Calgary move forward in their cancer experience. She helped Rethink itself move forward as an organization. With her corporate background, Tasha added structure and processes to a maturing Rethink. Yet she always had compassion for our growing pains. She knew Rethink was not a corporate-style charity. She provided Rethink with what some parenting books call “loving guidance”! Her training and coaching skills have certainly benefited me as a leader. I’m so grateful for her patience and guidance – teaching me about the cancer experience and also about leadership.

As Rethink has grown and evolved, there have been new advisory opportunities for Tasha. Tasha loves working with us on areas where she personally found a gap, then collaborating to help create something to help herself and help others. Her first husband tragically died just a couple of years after she got involved. And two years ago, her best friend Tricia passed not from leukemia, which she was originally diagnosed with, but metastatic breast cancer. Tasha is a superstar MBC Ally and she has chaired our MBC Advisory Board since its inception in 2018. She’s created The Sh*t List resource and she’s working with us to destigmatize palliative care and explore grief support to cope with loss.

Fundraiser, volunteer, advocate, builder, advisor, champion. Wife, mom and step-mom, executive, colleague, friend.

In those early days, Tasha was one of the “resting is not really my thing” types. Now I see her cherishing her rest and inspiring others to do the same with a strong focus on self-care, boundaries and sustainability. You might think after so many years, Tasha might have “compassion fatigue” when it comes to supporting others and advising an always evolving Rethink. But what I see is someone whose compassion continues to grow and grow. — 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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