This extra step doesn’t cost Shea Mahoney any deductions.
After touring the Lewis and Faye Manderson Cancer Center last year with the rest of her team, the University of Alabama gymnast asked if there was any way she could come back and lend a hand. Mahoney is the only UA student-athlete who regularly volunteers at that wing of the DCH Regional Medical Center. She does so at least once a week, twice during the offseason.
“If I’m stressed with school or stressed with practice, I walk in there and it’s kind of a slap in the face,” the Alabama junior said. “Like, ‘Hi, perspective here. It might be stressful, it might be hard some days, but you’re literally here living your dream.’ ”
While some people are fighting for their lives.
That mental shift is the point of Alabama’s annual Power of Pink meet: to raise breast cancer awareness. Because without it, the DCH Breast Cancer Fund wouldn’t be where it is today.
Friday night, before No. 9 Alabama competes against No. 2 Florida, a check for $125,000 will be presented to the DCH Foundation.
“Everyone in town goes to these athletic events, so it’s so much more exposure than we can get on our own,” said Hannah McPhillips, the DCH Foundation’s special events manager. “Having Alabama athletes advocate for this and put their face with this is huge for us, just increases how much money we can raise and how many patients’ lives we can impact.”
For the past 15 years, the DCH Breast Cancer Fund has been steadily growing. The total is around $2 million now. All of it goes toward helping uninsured women in West Alabama.
There were 387 mammograms given to those who couldn’t afford them in 2018. Three resulted in positive diagnoses.
“From what I have learned — because I’m not a survivor myself but I’ve become close to many that are — once you are diagnosed with cancer, it is something you think about every day,” said Jana Smith, the Manderson Cancer Center’s outreach coordinator. “It does become a little bit of who you are, but you want the focus not to be on the disease; you want it to be on the person.”
That’s where Smith and her team step in.
Not only does the fund assist with medical necessities, such as testing and screening, it also helps make the transition after treatment as painless as possible.
There’s a Behind the Ribbon program that pairs newly diagnosed patients with specially trained survivors. There are monthly educational luncheons for the Breast Cancer Support Group. There’s Katrina Lewis, a ‘navigator’ for patients who works one-on-one with people throughout the entire process.
It doesn’t stop there.
“We’ll buy bras for them,” McPhillips said. “If they have a double mastectomy, then they can get fitted here and the fund pays for that. It pays for makeovers to make them feel beautiful again. It pays for wigs and having them fitted. It’s in small ways, where it might seem small but is very impactful to their emotional state and their attitude.
“And attitude alone is a huge part of fighting cancer.”
That’s why the fund is also used for events.
Back in the fall, the Manderson Cancer Center hosted a “Just For You Day” that featured a fashion show. It allowed patients and survivors to dress up, walk the runway and have some carefree fun. They could forget, even just for a moment, what they have gone through or are still going through.
“These Power of Pink events are a great tool,” Smith said. “These survivors can get in the spotlight and see: Hey, we’re celebrating your life and your victory over this disease, but we’re really celebrating you.
“We want them to see the community is behind them.”
For the past 10 years, the Alabama gymnastics team has been selfless in a way. It recognizes survivors during Power of Pink introductions instead of its own members. Each gymnast steps onto the circle “A” with at least one by her side.
The crowd at Coleman Coliseum applauds.
“It is really cool to watch and meet these ladies that are going through treatment and kind of in a hard place right now, then they set a goal of, next year, I want to be well enough to be one that gets to walk out with the gymnasts,” Smith said. “This year, I know for sure three ladies that had expressed that as one of their goals and will be walking out with the gymnasts on Friday night.”
They’re looking forward to it just as much as the team. Power of Pink meets started in 2005 and tend to be the gymnasts’ favorite. They enjoy putting the spotlight on someone else and often say they’re “doing it for her.”
The Crimson Tide is also 28-0 in pink leotards.
“We’re competing for the ones who are fighting, celebrating the ones who have won their battle and, of course, remembering the one who unfortunately got beat to the finish line,” Jensie Givens said.
That’s coming from a freshman who just experienced her first pink meet — last week’s road meet was Arkansas’ pink meet — and hasn’t even seen an Alabama pink meet yet.
“I think we do a really good job when we’re in the recruiting process of talking about the culture of the gymnastics program,” UA coach Dana Duckworth said. “We are about the community. We’ve always been about the community.”
Sometimes, it hits closer to home.
Givens will escort her aunt this year. Nickie Guerrero escorted her mom last year before graduating. Volunteer assistant coach Aja Sims was joined by her aunt in 2015 when Sims was a gymnast.
In 2013, former Crimson Tide gymnast Annie Wilhide Dziadon, who competed from 1980-83, came back as a survivor.
“Alabama’s always been that school that’s gone beyond the sport, gone beyond gymnastics,” Givens said. ”… Dana always talks about person over gymnast.”
For the past year, the Manderson Cancer Center has had an extra set of hands around. Mahoney continues to work as Smith’s volunteer. Somehow she manages it in between athletics and academics.
That original tour really struck a chord.
“I feel that I’m called to just share my heart and share my words with people in any way I can,” Mahoney said. “I just felt so called that day to be involved with that place and be involved with the patients and the people in any way I possibly could.”
Mahoney entered college pre-med but soon switched her major to communications studies after realizing the main reason she wanted to be a doctor was so she could help people. Her voice was her strongest asset, not medical skills. (Biology class also happened.)
For that reason, Mahoney doesn’t spend as much time in the infusion and treatments rooms. She more involved in planning events where the patients and survivors can escape that side of cancer, like the “Just For You Day.” She was the emcee.
“Just her presence,” Smith said. “If you talk to Shea and get to know her, you just see she exudes this joy and passion in everything that she does. She has this sincerity with which she interacts with people, and that’s something that’s really important.”
Said Duckworth: “Shea is the epitome of someone that just finds more joy in helping others find their joys than she does in finding her own.”
This season, Mahoney has really stepped up for the Crimson Tide. She is one of five gymnasts who have competed in every meet. She does three events — vault, uneven bars and floor exercise. Her season highs consist of a 9.95 on bars (best score on Alabama), a 9.9 on floor (fifth best) and a 9.875 on vault (third best).
None of that matters this week.
“To me, the Power of Pink is something that is so much bigger than myself,” Mahoney said. “It’s so much bigger than gymnastics. It’s so much bigger than any leotard I could ever put on or any score I could ever get. The Power of Pink means competing and doing what I love for someone that’s fighting a way bigger fight than I ever could imagine.”
A fight she sees up close and personal on a regular basis. A fight she sees people smile through. A fight she sees turn patients into survivors.
Most importantly, a fight no one should have to fight.
“You can’t help but get emotional, but also just be so inspired,” Mahoney said. “Like I just wish I could take it all away from them. I wish I could make it all better.”
Reach Terrin Waack at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.