Throwing a strike against cancer

Two Lawrence women have teamed up to organize a bowling event July 21 that will benefit the organizations they are passionate about: Livestrong and Catch a Break.

Both organizations help patients and their families in the fight against cancer.

Earlier this year, Michelle Derusseau, 48, became a Douglas County leader for The Lance Armstrong Foundation and its Livestrong campaign. As a leader, she helps educate the community about the free resources that the foundation provides and its mission.

“Livestrong fights to improve the lives of people affected by cancer, and that’s not just the person who has been diagnosed but it’s everybody affected by that diagnosis,” she said.

Derusseau said the foundation provides a navigation center where anyone can call and ask about topics such as clinical trials, finances, employee rights and insurance. The foundation also offers a free 198-page guidebook, planner and journal. She said the foundation helped provided guidance for her family members as they battled cancer.

Her aunt was diagnosed with lung cancer in January 2011, and she died six weeks later. This year, her uncle was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he died seven weeks later.

“Livestrong guided them through some stuff in a very short time and helped them make the best choices,” Derusseau said. “It helped them get their affairs in order in such a short time and it offered their kids a place to call and ask questions.”

Derusseau said her father is a prostate cancer survivor and her stepmother is a two-time breast cancer survivor. She’s also had too many friends battle the disease.

“Several of them fought for years and years and went through every painful treatment option until their bodies just wore out, and it’s just really hard to watch,” she said.

Derusseau participated in the Livestrong Challenge, a 5K race and 90-mile bicycle ride, last October and raised $2,500. But she wanted to do more and came up with the idea of organizing her own fundraiser to raise money and awareness.

She also decided it would be better to have a partner. As she was doing her research, she came across the website for Catch a Break, a Lawrence-based nonprofit that was founded by 49-year-old Cindy Sargent, a breast cancer survivor.

Sargent said it started in 2007 when she was contacted by a Kansas University fraternity housemother who was looking to help someone with cancer during the holidays. The housemother knew Sargent was a cancer survivor and belonged to a support group at Lawrence Memorial Hospital and thought she might have some connections. Sargent said she would be happy to help and sent an email to the 20 or so people in her group.

“I thought I might get one person to respond, but six people did and so I’m thinking I want to help them all,” she said.

She started calling friends, family and colleagues to adopt the other families during the holidays, and they did. Then it became an annual event, and it grew each year.

Soon after she was helping 24 families, and it because too much for her to manage on her own, so she met with the LMH Endowment Association, which helped her set up a fund. Now it helps cancer patients year-round.

She calls it the Catch a Break foundation because it’s meant to help cancer patients immediately with needs such as groceries, car repairs, medicine or utility bills.

“Nobody gets a lot of money out of this,” she said. “It’s just enough to catch a break. It’s enough to help get something paid.”

So far, it has raised $25,000 through a fall letter campaign and word of mouth.

She won’t soon forget helping one man pay all of his utility bill before he died of cancer one month later. For the first time, his amount was zero and he would call the company every day just to hear that recording that said his balance was zero.

“It was during the winter, and his bill was pretty stout, as I recall, but it gave him great joy and helped his family through the holiday season,” she said. “That’s the kind of stuff that makes it worthwhile.”

When she was approached by Derusseau to start a fundraiser, she thought it was the perfect marriage.

Not only will the event help raise awareness about cancer and the work of both organizations, but, more importantly, it will raise money to help those fighting cancer. Half of the money will go to Livestrong and half to Catch a Break.

“Cancer is a horrible thing to go through, but for me, a lot of good things came out of it,” Sargent said.

— Health reporter Karrey Britt can be reached at 832-7190. Britt is editor of, and you can follow her at