Louise Unell: Volunteerism a result of cancer

As a youngster, Louise Unell wasn’t a girlie girl in love with pinks and purples. Yet today, Unell has a pink scarf and a pink cellphone cover, and she’s proud of both.

Unell is an American Cancer Society volunteer. On Oct. 25, she will be helping out at the American Cancer Society’s 5K fundraiser walk, Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, held at the Red Rock Resort.

Her assignment is the breast cancer survivor tent. She will greet visitors who sign in, give them a small gift for coming, explain the day’s activities and, for those she can tell are newly diagnosed, she will offer a hug, a private conversation and encouragement.

“You become a survivor,” Unell said, “the day you are diagnosed.”

A team from the company owned by Unell and her husband, Steve Gleicher, will also be walking the 3.2-mile course, bringing with them pledges of American Cancer Society donations. Last year’s event attracted 18,000 participants and raised $615,000.

Unell is a great believer in research dollars. She says her participation in a clinical trial of a new breast cancer treatment regimen saved her life 11 years ago.

Today, a related treatment regimen is helping her live with a recently diagnosed reoccurrence of her disease.

“Cancer is an awful disease, and frankly, after 11 years, I was devastated earlier this year when I was told my sciatic pain was actually a return of my breast cancer,” Unell said. “But like so many other cancer patients, I choose to be a warrior. Thank goodness, so far, my current medication and treatment are working, and I’m able to live my life.”

The life Unell chooses these days is part-time work at Right at Home, the in-home senior care company owned by her and her husband.

“I was working seven days a week before the recent diagnosis,” she said. “Now I just don’t have the energy to work that many days, but, fortunately, we have a great staff to take on the extra work.”

Unell also is unabashed in her support of the American Cancer Society and its work. She was only 46 and living in Chicago when she initially felt a different kind of lump in her right breast. Rather than wait several months for her scheduled mammogram, she grabbed copies of her previous breast films (she had a history of cystic breasts) and brought them with her on a planned vacation to Las Vegas. Her husband’s cousin, a radiologist, lived in Las Vegas, and Unell thought she could get a speedy reading from him to alleviate her fears.

She did get instant access to a mammogram and even an ultrasound, but in the end the news was not good. Medical oncologist Dr. Edwin Kingsley of Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada was recommended to her, and he ultimately made arrangements for the clinical trial of treatment that happened to apply to her type of cancer. At this same time, Unell and her husband decided to move to Las Vegas, and they made the move within weeks so her treatment could begin.

Unell was given two three-month sessions of chemotherapy that Unell describes as “sometimes fine and sometimes terrible.” On the good days, she was able to research her options with regard to a single or double mastectomy, which she knew was coming following the chemotherapy. She chose a bilateral mastectomy that later analysis of her breast tissue proved to be the right decision. The surgery was then followed by radiation.

“That was a tough year, but it led to 11 years of life that I might not otherwise have had,” she said.

What helped her through? The support of her husband was critical.

“Steve was a trouper, and, during that year, I asked him to tell my story in answer to friends’ questions rather than me,” she said. “I just wasn’t up to it at the time. What also helped were two weekly support groups. Even if you don’t want to talk at support group meetings, just hearing the others’ stories lets you know that you are not alone. In the end, you also come to the realization, ‘Why not me?’ “

While attending the American Cancer Society program Look Good, Feel Better, Unell met Erika Gurnee, now health systems manager, Great Western Division, American Cancer Society. Gurnee asked Unell, a former advertising and marketing executive, if she would like to volunteer with the American Cancer Society. She did, and was a regular volunteer for some five years before she and her husband opened their business.

“Since I have been able to live my life,” Unell said, “I have felt it necessary to give back — to do something that may have an impact on others. That’s why our business of providing home care to those who need it appealed to me, and that’s why volunteering and working with The American Cancer Society and other cancer survivors gives me so much satisfaction.”

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