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Tracie Benjamin wasting no time helping other cancer victims with Pink Cells

by: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Tracie Benjamin now has her life back and she can look toward the future.

Tracie Benjamin had a wonderful life, but she was losing it piece by piece.

Benjamin had just started a new business. Best of all, she was in love.

Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer in April, and the losing began. She lost her breasts, her hair, her financial stability, just about everything that makes life worth living for as a young woman.

Today, Benjamin has her life back, and she wants other breast cancer survivors to get their lives back too. That is why she and her friend Roxana Hannah have started an organization called Pink Cells, which is dedicated to relieving some of the financial distress of cancer victims by helping them pay for something they can't live without — their cellphones. The fund covers the cellphone cost for approved applicants for three months by providing them with cellular service.

"When I hear about someone just finding out they have cancer I cry every time," Benjamin said. "It is so scary and there is so much that is unknown when you first get cancer. Now I want the chance to tell them they'll be OK and help them get through the process."

Benjamin now wears a knit cap over her bald head, but her smile is beaming. She had her last chemotherapy treatment Oct. 2. She is ready to leave behind five months of suffering, severe medical treatment and the utmost anxiety. Her life is wonderful again. Maybe even better than before because she has more purpose than ever, and she just got engaged to the man she loves.

"Pink Cells is something completely different," Benjamin said. "I've never done anything before where I had so much emotion attached to it. I can't wait to help and give back."

Cancer had an impact on Benjamin's life long before she was stricken with breast cancer. Her mother, Ruth-Ann Erickson, survived a bout with cancer at age 47, and Benjamin has participated in Race for the Cure for the past 10 years.

But Benjamin is only 30 years old, and when she started telling her friends that she did not feel right, "They told me, 'You're too young to get breast cancer.' But I had a gut feeling something wasn't right. After I had my first tests my doctor called me and said he wanted to see me. I figured that if I didn't have cancer he would have told me over the phone."

Benjamin was diagnosed with cancer on April 15, and her five-month ordeal began. Even though her cancer was at a relatively early stage, Benjamin chose to treat her disease aggressively.

"I had a bilateral mastectomy," she said. "I had both breasts removed on May 22. I had two tumors in my left breast, and I chose to go the safest route. I would hate to see myself get cancer again in five or 10 years. For me, I'd rather have my life back."

Benjamin also had port surgery, eight chemotherapy sessions, four drains, two or three shots every day, blood drawings, and had her eggs extracted and frozen because she still wants to have children some day. On the latter score she counted herself lucky.

"I actually overachieved," Benjamin said. "I had 49 mature eggs extracted. That's triple the usual number."

The side effects were just as devastating. Her fingernails fell out and her feet became sore and red. The worst thing was losing her hair. Benjamin usually wears her hair long, several inches past her shoulders. As her treatments proceeded, her hair kept getting shorter and shorter, until she had no hair at all. However, she had a special person to help her bear this burden. Her future mother-in-law, Marie Penney, is the owner of Paradigm Salon in Lake Oswego and she had been cutting Benjamin's hair for seven years.

"It was an emotional thing for Marie because I've always worn my hair long," she said. "Both of our eyes were teary."

Normally an extremely outgoing and friendly person, Benjamin saw her social life reduced to zero, and she spent many quiet nights visiting her mother. Even worse, she lost crucial time starting her new business, PDX Pedal Promotions, because her treatments left her exhausted. She had left her job to start the new service and her finances were badly affected.

"I had my lifestyle stripped away from me," Benjamin said. "I went into hibernation mode."

Under the circumstances, it would have been easy for Benjamin to give in to despair. Instead, she chose to help other cancer survivors right in the middle of her own struggle. She sought out a friend who worked for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and asked how she could give back for all the help she had received from the organization.

One day, her life began to get wonderful again. Portland TV channel KATU found out about Benjamin's battle and contacted her about doing some news segments on dealing with cancer. KATU cameras even accompanied Benjamin when she went shopping for wigs prior to her chemotherapy treatment.

On the morning for Race for the Cure on Sept. 15, Benjamin was interviewed as a cancer survivor. She was led to a stage, given a headset to wear and began answering questions. She told the TV viewers, "I'm Tracie, I'm 30 years old and I have breast cancer."

Suddenly, she was kissed on the cheek. Benjamin was stunned.

"I couldn't even see who it was because of the headset," she said. "I had no idea who it was."

As it turned out, something great had finally happened on TV. Benjamin had been kissed by her boyfriend, Ryan Conner, and he quickly followed up by asking, "Will you marry me?" Benjamin giggled, "Yes, of course!"

Naturally, television cameras caught this ecstatic moment and, of course, it went viral over the Internet. KATU will continue to cover Benjamin's journey as she continues her recovery, undergoes final reconstructive surgery and prepares for her wedding day. When that happens, her blonde hair won't be at her shoulders, but it will be there. More good news: A jeweler will be donating her engagement ring.

While her own life is riding a wave of resurgent optimism, Benjamin will be helping others through Pink Cells. She has been busy signing up sponsors and contacting cancer survivors who need help.

"There is sort of a sisterhood with women who have been through this," Benjamin said. "We can relate on so many levels. We figure that Pink Cells will spread like wildfire.

"Doing this is like getting a Christmas present. It's very exciting."

For more information, go to pinkcells.com.

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