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Facing Cancer: Elise Gasbarrino, Founder of Pink Pearl Foundation

If you found out you had cancer, what would you do? Where would you turn?

The Pink Pearl Foundation is a not-for-profit organization that provides support, makes connections and empowers young women who are facing a cancer diagnosis. The Foundation has successfully raised more than $185,000 to date, with all funding going toward programming for young women between the ages of 18 and 40 battling cancer of any type. Programs include day-long and over-night wellness retreats, ask-the-expert health information sessions, and in-hospital support packages.

We spoke with the founder of Pink Pearl, cancer survivor Elise Gasbarrino.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I had an amazing childhood. I grew up in the small town of Thorold with a wonderful family and close group of friends. I went away to school and developed a need for adventure, to see new places and cultures. I was lucky enough to live in the UK, Australia, Italy and NYC. I currently work at Burberry and oversee our wholesale footwear business. Basically I get to play with shoes all day (well, not really, but it is pretty cool). A fun fact about me is I’m related to Madonna, although we don’t vacation together!

What was your reaction when you were first diagnosed with cancer?

In a strange way I knew it was coming, I knew something was wrong with my body. When something major happens to me I go into this logical fight mode vs. letting myself get emotional. Granted there were lots of times after that day for emotion, but immediately after getting the news, it was all about action. Less than an hour after sitting down with my doctor, I had a PICC line put into my arm and a chemo schedule to start in a couple days.

What was a saving grace for you personally in terms of recovering?

My support system. Starting Pink Pearl made me realize how important the support of those around you is to your recovery. Everyone from your doctors, to the social workers, to your family and friends; it takes a village to go through the ride of cancer.

What are you hearing from other young women who access the programs of the Pink Pearl Foundation?

We have a section on our website that is dedicated to our women and their inspiring stories. We want to show the public that cancer is only one chapter in our story. Our participant Julia had the following to say about us: “Pink Pearl is an inspiring organization that I am so thankful to have connected with! While I’ve been blessed to receive the incredible support of my husband, families and friends, it was such a gift to share experiences and forge friendships with fellow young women battling cancer.”

Close to 100 women have benefited from our programming, whether it’s through a support package, Facebook group or on a retreat. Our support packages are distributed through select hospitals and cancer support organizations in Niagara, Hamilton and Toronto. These were developed by the women for the women and include questions to ask when you are first diagnosed, a listing of support services and a bracelet of Hope.

Our overnight retreats take place twice a year and offer a supportive environment for women to connect with other women going through a cancer experience. It’s an outlet to ask questions, have someone listen and take some time for themselves.

What would you tell other young women facing a cancer diagnosis?

That you are not alone. I know it sounds cliché, but when you come to a Pink Pearl retreat, you see these connections form immediately. It makes you realize that all we really want is the chance to feel heard, understood and supported.

If a friend is diagnosed with cancer, what should I do? What should I say?

I think a lot of pressure is put on the supporter (family, friend, etc.) and I would suggest you take some of that pressure off. Just be there. Don’t worry about saying the “perfect” thing. I couldn’t tell you what any of my friends said to me when I told them the news. What I could tell you about was all the nights they came over to my parents’ to watch TV, driving me to chemo and helping me live as normal of a life as possible. Those are the moments I remember and definitely needed at the time.

What is in the works for 2016 with the Pink Pearl Foundation?

We are constantly looking at ways we can better support our women. To give you an idea of some of our upcoming programming for this year, we are giving away our annual scholarship at this year’s Black & White with a Touch of Pink. This scholarship goes to a young woman fighting cancer who is attending post-secondary education. Our in-hospital support packages continue to be in demand and we have expanded our distribution to include Princess Margaret and are looking to further grow this area in 2016. Additionally, we are excited to have our next spring retreat planned for June 10 at Pillar and Post in Niagara on the Lake.

From an events side, we have our annual One Fine Day fundraiser planned for August. This day is all about planning do to something you love with the people you love, and raise funds and awareness for young women with cancer.

Pink Pearl is run 100% by volunteers. For that reason, we really focus on not duplicating services that other organizations already have in place. We continue to have lots of exciting conversations with potential partners to see how we can best work together!

You can support Pink Pearl Foundation by buying tickets to their annual springtime gala, Black & White with a Touch of Pink, coming this April.

For more information on Pink Pearl Foundation, visit here. Find them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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