MONDAY Q&A: Indiana cancer survivor serving as 'face for the race' fundraiser
Kerri Ballas, Indiana native and co-owner of the Ironwood Grill, isn’t just a survivor of breast cancer — she is an inspiration as part of an organization, the Komen Race for the Cure, that raises money and gives hope to breast cancer patients and survivors. This year, she’s serving as the Survivor “Face for the Race” and Race for the Cure chairwoman. She recently sat down with Gazette staffer Ellen Matis to talk about her role and how being a survivor has helped her inspire others.
Question: You have firsthand experience with breast cancer. Tell me about your experience with cancer and how it makes you a great fit as chair.
Answer: I was diagnosed about six years ago and it came as a huge surprise. I was 40, and I had been having issues for probably about a year and a half before that. The doctor kept saying, “you’re young, you breast-fed your kids, you’re going to see changes in your breasts. With me it was one more than the other. I had a baseline mammogram when I was 38, which apparently showed nothing, even though I had already started to have changes in my breast. Later … I went back because I found a big lump and had another mammogram. This time I was confused, because the radiologist said “we have to get that out right now,” and I thought he was talking about the lump I had just found, but he was actually talking about the original other side that I had concerns with.
I was angry with my diagnosis. I was very angry. It never occurred to me that it could be breast cancer, and when I finally received the diagnosis I looked up the symptoms of breast cancer online and I had four out of the top six. I was angry and shocked … my children were quite little … it just came as a horrible surprise.
I went through my treatment, sort of kept my head down and took my medicine, but as I was coming out of treatment a couple of friends of mine did the Race for the Cure in my honor. I was still going through chemo so I didn’t want to do it myself.
I sort of latched on to that and found a way to release my anger by raising money and raising awareness and speaking out for Komen. I got involved with an awful lot of different activities for Komen, fundraisers at our restaurant, got involved with Shoot for the Cure at IUP years ago. All of this has been very therapeutic for me. As far as my role with Komen this time, I serve as a survivor “face for the race.” It’s not as much about raising money as it is about raising awareness for Komen’s mission and what it stands for.
Question: How did your family react to the news, and how did they support you while you were fighting cancer?
Answer: Obviously everybody was very upset, and it was hard to tell my children — they were 6 and 10. What seemed to scare them the most was that I looked healthy. I hadn’t been ill, but when I told them my hair was going to fall out … that really upset my kids a lot. On the other hand, they saw me go through the medical part of it, and they’ve seen me fight and technically “win,” so I feel like that’s something that they’ll have for the rest of their lives.
I tried to make it a positive experience by getting involved in these things because they’re involved with me, too. My daughter a couple of years ago took it upon herself to make bracelets and sell them in our restaurant and she raised $250 or $300 one summer by doing that on her own. There were different ways that they’ve helped and they’ve supported me by being involved in these activities. We’ve sort of made it a family tradition.
Question: What are some of your responsibilities as chair of Race for the Cure?
Answer: More than anything I’m the face for the race — I spoke at the kickoff party a couple of weeks ago, I’ll speak to the survivors on race day, I got to help design the survivor pin this year, which is pretty exciting because it’s something that everybody looks forward to getting at the race — the survivors collect them. Other than that I have other speaking engagements that I have coming up, the Luther Ford golf tournament the Friday right before the race.
The thing about being a survivor like me is that not a lot of people want to do what I do. Most survivors, you know, they survive. They want to go on with their lives. They don’t necessarily want to be recognized or speak out about what happened to them — I guess I’m kind of unique in that sense.
Question: By being the first chair to be chosen from outside of Allegheny County, how is that influencing the cause?
Answer: I think one of the reasons they chose me — I don’t think they purposely went outside of Allegheny County, it just so happened that I’ve become very involved with Komen over the last five years, more and more, and I’ve gotten to know the staff really well. I think maybe they were looking to broaden their reach because Indiana is one of the counties that they serve. They serve 30 counties surrounding Pittsburgh. Maybe they were hoping they would extend their reach and maybe capture a somewhat younger audience because I’m a young survivor.
Question: You hold fundraisers at the Ironwood every year. Can you tell me a little bit about this event?
Answer: I usually do the fundraiser twice a year. We had one just a few weeks ago with the band Coastal Remedy, a local band. They played for free. It was a wonderful evening. The community is very supportive. The Ironwood patrons are very supportive, my family, my friends. We had 10 business sponsors this year, which is fabulous. All of that came together to raise $1,600.
Question: Who’s on your team for the race on May 12?
Answer: Myself; my daughter, Blair; my son, Connor; my friend Vicki Smith and Connie Mabin — those are the two friends who have done the race in my honor; and Vicki’s mom, Bernice DiEmidio.
Question: You’ve been a top 25 fundraiser for the past three years. Do you think you’ll be in the top 25 again this year?
Answer: I’m hoping. I think I’ve hit the highest amount that I’ve raised so far, I’m at about $4,600. Right now I’m about third on the list of fundraisers, but that can change at any time before the race.
Question: Do you have any advice for women currently fighting breast cancer?
Answer: I think that I would like them to know that they’re not alone. There are resources that they can turn to for support if they want to. There are a lot of programs through the hospital, through Komen, through the American Cancer Society. I’m also a Reach to Recovery volunteer, which reaches out to survivors and people recently going through treatment.
Question: Why should people participate in the Race for the Cure?
Answer: I think that, for people that have never gone to the race, the race can be a very inspiring activity to participate in, even if you’re not interested in raising money. If you’re a survivor and you go there and see 40,000 people all together walking for one cause, it’s pretty inspiring. It never ceases to amaze me whether I’m at the beginning of the line or toward the end of the line; it’s just a sea of pink that seems to go on forever. No matter what the weather is, it lifts you up. It’s hard to describe if you haven’t been there, but to be there and see that, it’s pretty amazing.
NEXT WEEK: Ruiess Van Fossen Bravo, the director of the Christian Counseling Service in Indiana.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Do you know someone who would be a great subject for the Monday Q&A? If so, please call Jason Levan at (724) 465-5555, ext. 270.
• Job: Co-owner of the Ironwood Grill
• Age: 47
• Residence: Indiana
• Hobbies: Gardening and fundraising
• Favorite food: Mexican
• Pet peeve: Closed- minded people
• Life goal: To make a difference in the lives of women by making them aware of their lives and themselves
• Person who has most inspired you: A breast cancer survivor I went to high school with who taught me to “embrace the positive side of having cancer.”