Thirteen years ago, Irene Sawyer was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that would require 18 months of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. “The treatment was brutal,” says Sawyer, a real estate agent at Keller Williams. The experience motivated her to help other women with breast cancer.
“When I had my cancer journey, I was surrounded by so many people who supported me, but at the same time I realized that a lot of women with breast cancer don’t have that kind of support,” says Sawyer, who has been practicing real estate for over a decade, first in Columbus, Ohio, and now in Blowing Rock, N.C., which is located in the High Country, a region in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“When I Googled ‘breast cancer foundation in the High Country,’ only one organization popped up and it was in Charlotte. It was a lightbulb moment.” –Irene Sawyer, sales associate, Keller Williams
In 2015, “When I moved to the High Country, I noticed many businesses and members of the public were eager to show their support during October, which is breast cancer awareness month,” Sawyer recalls. “However, there was nothing formally in place to provide assistance during the rest of the year.”
Sawyer sprang into action, starting the High Country Breast Cancer Foundation in April 2017. The nonprofit provides a variety of services, including financial assistance to breast cancer patients who need help paying medical bills, free mammograms to women without health insurance, and garments that patients need after a mastectomy or other treatment. Sawyer pays the nonprofit's expenses from her real estate earnings so that 100% of donations support the patients' needs.
She credits her team of 10 volunteers for the organization’s success. “They volunteer out of the goodness of their hearts,” Sawyer says.
‘She’s Wonder Woman’
“Irene is the sweetest person you will ever meet,” says Connie Winebarger, who met Sawyer at a breast cancer awareness event in the winter of 2017. Winebarger, who was treated for stage two breast cancer in 2014, leaned on Sawyer and the foundation when her cancer recurred in 2019. “The foundation helped me pay my hospital bills when I didn’t have health insurance,” she says. It also helped Winebarger purchase mastectomy bras and a wig.
Winebarger describes Sawyer as a close friend with limitless energy. “She does so much for our community,” she says. “She’s always positive and upbeat. She’s basically Wonder Woman.”
Joanie Venza is the foundation’s vice president and a breast cancer survivor. When she met Sawyer, “there was immediately a shared connection,” Venza says. “The foundation is Irene’s dream and her brainchild, and I don’t think anyone else could have accomplished what she has.”
Rallying the Community
Every year Sawyer and her volunteers organize a 5K fundraising run. “It’s basically a huge party,” she says. “We have a beautiful arch made of pink balloons at the start and finish lines, every participant gets a t-shirt, and we have a photo booth.” Rather than cancel the runs in 2020 and 2021 in response to the pandemic, Sawyer made the decision to hold the 5K virtually. “Because we’re a health-focused organization, we had to be very careful about exposing breast cancer patients to other people who could be sick with COVID-19, but Irene was determined to keep the event going,” Venza says.
Then there’s the foundation’s other big fundraiser—the annual “Decorate the Bra Contest.” Community members and local businesses donate hundreds of custom-decorated bras, and people vote for their favorite. The winner receives $1,000. “I tell people the bigger the bra, the better, so that there’s more space to decorate,” Sawyer says with a laugh.
“Irene can make anything happen. She gained the whole Appalachian community’s support.” –Joanie Venza, vice president, High Country Breast Cancer Foundation
People can easily spot the nonprofit’s volunteers when they’re in public. “Whenever our volunteers are at an event, like walking in a parade, or speaking on behalf of the foundation, everyone wears a pink tutu,” Sawyer says. That includes Blowing Rock Mayor Charlie Sellers. “He agreed to wear it so that his local influence would lead to more donations for the foundation,” Sawyer says. “The mayor is probably our biggest supporter.”
Another way Sawyer rallies the community around her foundation’s cause: “We organize food trains for breast cancer patients when they’re undergoing treatment” and don’t have the energy to cook, she says.
Through a partnership with a local cancer garment store, the foundation provides breast cancer patients with wigs, lymphedema sleeves, compression socks and other garments. And recently, Sawyer formed a relationship with Paxman Scalp Cooling, a London-based company that manufactures a high-tech cooling system that helps some cancer patients keep their hair during chemotherapy. “The machine looks like a small dehumidifier, with a rubber hose coming out of it that’s attached to a helmet,” Sawyer explains. “The device sends freezing water through the scalp and freezes the hair follicles so that the chemotherapy drugs can’t get past the ice and cause the person’s hair to fall out.”
Each scalp cooling treatment costs between $150 and $260, depending on the number of treatments a patient receives, and the High Country Breast Cancer Foundation foots the bill. “Most of the women who’ve used the cooling system lost only a small amount of hair,” she says. “That’s been a big confidence booster for a lot of the women.”
‘A Friend for Life’
When Winebarger’s breast cancer came back in 2019 and spread to her right collarbone and sternum, Sawyer was one of first people she called.
“Having someone by my side who personally knows what I’ve been through and can support me, emotionally and financially, has been a blessing,” says Winebarger, who completed her fifth and final round of radiation treatment in July. “Irene makes you feel like family, which is what you need when you’re feeling down. I know she’ll be a friend for life.”
Irene Sawyer, MRP, from Blowing Rock, N.C., is a sales associate at Keller Williams and founder of the High Country Breast Cancer Foundation.