Daniel Doughty routinely asks his mom: “Whose life did you save today?”
His mother is not a surgeon, a paramedic or a firefighter. But Sharon Willis Doughty is a lifeline of her own making.
“I’m the face of a survivor and I give women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer hope,” said Willis Doughty, a woman who has conquered the disease. “I tell them, ‘I’m going to help you do this.’ I tell them ‘We’re going to do this together.’”
The patient navigator and care management coordinator works at the Breast Center at St. Joseph Health Medical Group in Santa Rosa. She guides women who are facing their worst fears with a blanket of strength.
Willis Doughty is taking part in the Unbreakable Project, a mission to wrap cancer patients across Northern California in cozy blankets with courageous words on them.
The black and gray blankets are 6-feet long by 3-feet wide, and the words are printed on the blankets in white, with STRENGTH having the biggest impact in 3-inch-tall lettering. The word also is printed upside down, allowing the cancer patients the opportunity to see it prominently when they’re bundled in the blanket, often during treatments than can last several hours. The goal is to inspire cancer patients to be invincible when they see the words and affirmative phrases right on the blanket. The passages include: “I am a relentless warrior;” “Love is my greatest muscle;” and “I choose optimism.” The brainchild of the blankets is athlete, motivational speaker and clothing designer Leigh Weinraub of San Francisco-based Mind in Motion. Weintraub, who lives in Mill Valley, said, “A year ago I sat down, probably with a glass of wine, and asked myself ‘What do cancer patients and their family members need to hear?’ I hate writing essays, but I love writing bold statements and I speak in bold statements.” She said cancer can put patients in dark places, and she wanted to remedy that. “It’s undeniable that your thoughts are inextricably linked to your actions and emotions,” she said.
To date, Weinraub has sold about 5,000 blankets. Her foray into selling was at the American Cancer Society Gala in San Francisco last year where the blankets were auctioned off for $1,000 each and in a matter of minutes, they raised more than $50,000. She plans to work closely with more cancer support groups like the North Bay Cancer Alliance on fundraising efforts, as well as donate a part of the proceeds from sales.
“My father was diagnosed with cancer two years ago and it was a big scare,” Weinraub said. “I also lost two grandparents to cancer. I myself have not had it, but I’ve seen it up close and personal with family members, friends and clients.”
When Ken Corley, executive director of the North Bay Cancer Alliance, crossed paths with one of these blankets, he was touched. Corley was at the Martin-O’Neil Cancer Center in St. Helena distributing funds for low-income cancer patients when a staff member showed him a blanket.
“When you start reading the words and you put yourself in the place of a cancer patient, I could feel the impact it would have on that person, and this has been the case,” Corley said. “You may think it’s just a blanket, but it’s not. Cancer patients need all the strength they can get.”
Corley said the North Bay Cancer Alliance has handed out about 30 blankets so far, but by the end of the year he hopes to have 1,000 out to oncology centers throughout the North Bay, like the Breast Center. The blankets cost $86 each, and in hopes of being able to give them to cancer patients free of charge, the North Bay Cancer Alliance and Mind in Motion have joined forces to create the Unbreakable Project Cancer Champions Fundraiser, launching this month at www.northbaycancer.com.
People can donate whatever amount they choose to go toward the purchase of blankets. This passage on the website describes the positive thinking behind the mission: “Countless studies indicate that having a positive mindset can increase positive outcomes. Evidence also supports that positive affirmations can boost positive emotions. When we win in our mind we enable our body to follow.
The Unbreakable Project is an avenue for you to give cancer patients the powerful message that while cancer may weaken the body, it does not have to destroy their spirit.”
Corley’s video shows his enthusiasm for the project:
“It’s a small price to pay,” he says, “for such a big impact.”
Willis Doughty recalls the first patient she gave a blanket to.
“When she left, it was 98 degrees [outside] and she wrapped herself up in the blanket and kept it on when she walked to her car,” she recalled. “She was really touched. She was that relentless warrior.”
Willis Doughty, 54, was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, and she celebrated her five-year milestone of being cancer-free in 2016.
“I would have loved one of these blankets,” she said. “It would have done a lot for me sitting in the chemo chair. I think I would have felt like I was being taken care of by my community,
“It was a tough year,” she said. “I was super active before, so that year was such an eye opener. Plus I was bald, didn’t feel good, my body was different and I felt very vulnerable. You just sort of think, am I ever going to be the same? Am I ever going to be able to think clearly? You have to come to the understanding that your body won’t be the same body. At first you just want to live and then you have to make peace with a lot of things. Everyone is different but for me the hair loss was a huge deal. My hair was long and I really liked it.”
Shortly after Willis Doughty’s year of treatments, she encouraged St. Joseph Medical Group to create a patient support position for her to help women diagnosed with breast cancer, and she was hired in 2015. Willis Doughty’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. She won a ‘Justice Award’ for St. Joseph Health’s ‘Values in Action’ this year for the county and state.
Willis Doughty is a petite woman with brown eyes, thick black hair and an easy smile.
“Every single woman I meet with feels so much stronger because they see how well I’m doing,” she said. “We all have our gifts we’re given. It’s our job to figure out what they are and how to use them. I think I’ve found what I was meant to do.”
Willis Doughty and the team she works with have expanded and created some new “Rebuild & Renew: Cancer Wellness Programs,” a series of classes including yoga, art and sound healing. The free classes are for anyone in the community who has cancer or has had cancer. She also dispenses funds from places like the North Bay Cancer Alliance and Volunteer Center of Sonoma County to help women with gas, food, shelter –– the basic necessities.
Willis Doughty’s daughter, 26-year-old Katrina, said “I love watching how my mother spends her days working to help other people navigate the world of cancer. The year that followed my mother’s diagnosis was one of the most painful, difficult and tear-producing years we had ever been through, and I could not be more proud or amazed by her strength, beautiful vulnerability and grace.”
Willis Doughty’s son, 25-year-old Daniel, said: “One of the things I admire a lot about my mom is her genuine desire to help others. She put time in on where to find wigs, how to save money when the bills were coming in, the best choices for treatment, etc. All of the information she has learned from going through cancer allows her to help patients every day.”
Most importantly, Daniel said, is how his mom inspires women with hope.
“It’s raw when you find out you have cancer,” Willis Doughty said. “When you find out you have cancer it stops you in your tracks. It happens every day that some woman finds out she has breast cancer. I never want to forget that moment for me when I’m trying to be there for that lady who just found out.”