PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to raise awareness about the impact of breast cancer.
Those living in Southern New England may have heard of the Gloria Gemma Cancer Research Foundation, which was established in memory of Gloria who lost her battle with breast cancer in 2002.
In the nearly two decades the foundation has been in existence, it has saved countless lives.
“My mom was diagnosed late stage. I’m one of nine, and my siblings and I, we were devastated by it, and so for us, it was a very difficult time to navigate but emotionally we were all over the place,” Maria Gemma said.
The foundation’s mission is to celebrate and nurture life in the community before, during and after a cancer diagnosis by providing education, access to wellness resources and support programs to all those impacted by cancer.
“We’re a big Italian family. My mother liked to feed people, she liked to talk to people, she didn’t do that on the computer so we started a resource and wellness center a few years after that as a way to help people personally in her memory and her honor. That opened a pandora’s box,” Maria said.
It led to education about breast cancer, and other cancers, as well as the importance of early detection, which saved one of Gloria’s daughters, who is also named Gloria.
“Her cancer was detected early because of the message the foundation delivers — know your body, know your risks, and question,” Maria said. “It’s emotional too. Because the quality of their life is impacted, so if they can connect emotionally, it saves them in their enjoyment of life.”
Maureen DiPiero works on the hope bus, offering patients and survivors anything from education and resources to a hug.
“The fact that they trust us when they are most vulnerable is the most amazing thing that happens,” DiPiero said. “We are an impartial ear, and it’s easy to unload their feelings with us because they’re not worried about putting an extra burden on us.”
Since 2004, the foundation has grown to seven full-time employees, one part-time employee, and countless volunteers. They come together to put on events, including their biggest each year: the Flames of Hope weekend.
“I think one of the things we do, and especially in my job where I’m educating people is to get to the day when no one has cancer, not just breast cancer but no one has any cancer,” DiPiero said. “Until then, the Gloria Gemma Foundation is there to help in any way we can.”
Gloria left behind nine children, but her family has grown to thousands who have been remembered in her honor.