Lending a hand

Becca Edwards kisses her daughter, Kimber, 2, at their North Charleston home. Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after Kimber was born. Edwards receives financial help with her bills from the Share our Suzy organization.

Becca Edwards stepped out of the shower two years ago and noticed a lump on her breast.

"The lump was so large I saw it," Edwards said. "I thought, 'It's nothing. It will go away. I must have bumped into something.' "

She had recently stopped breastfeeding her daughter Kimber and thought maybe the lump was some benign irregularity related to milk production.

But it didn't go away. Edwards, 32, who lives in North Charleston, eventually showed the quarter-sized lump to her husband, Jason. He encouraged his wife to call her doctor.

"Just to be on the safe side," she said.

Edwards was 29 years old when she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer on May 1, 2012.

"Once they did a PET (positron emission tomography) scan about two weeks later, they found out it was Stage 4," she said.

She had lumpectomy surgery, then a mastectomy. Her ovaries have since been removed. Last May, after completing a round of chemotherapy, the cancer spread to her brain, leaving behind six tumors.

"They operated on the one (tumor) that was causing me balance issues and headaches and they did radiation for the other five," she said. "They're still there but they're shrinking."

The cancer spread again, in her liver and her lungs. Then it disappeared after more chemotherapy.

"Right now, I still have it in my brain and in my bones."

She is undergoing chemotherapy, indefinitely, for now. It's been a grueling battle, both physically and emotionally, but fighting cancer also is very expensive. Edwards is insured through her husband's employer but cannot estimate how much they've spent out-of-pocket on the disease over the past two years.

"I get about 10 Roper Hospital bills a month. They range anywhere from $170 to over $1,000 that I need to pay," she said. "I pay them $10 on each one when I can. Sometimes it's every month, but sometimes - I'm on Social Security disability - but that doesn't even hardly cover anything."

The Duke University Medical Center and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute determined in 2011 that cancer patients with health insurance still spend an average $712 a month on health care-related costs, including co-payments, prescriptions, lost wages and travel expenses.

A South Carolina organization called Share our Suzy helps with some of these costs. The statewide nonprofit raises money to help breast cancer patients pay for expenses that health insurance does not cover. For example, Share our Suzy covers the Edwards family's $200 utility bill every month.

To qualify, potential recipients must live in South Carolina and must provide information about their medical condition. They also must be currently undergoing treatment.

The organization is named after Suzy McGrane, a Columbia photographer who was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 20s.

At the time she was diagnosed, McGrane had no health insurance. A group of friends organized a fundraiser called "Save our Suzy" to help her pay some medical bills.

After McGrane died nearly 10 years ago, her friends changed the name of the organization to "Share our Suzy" to continue raising money in her memory, said Mason Ward, a Mount Pleasant resident and a board member of the Lowcountry branch.

It's an all-volunteer group that operates with virtually no overhead expenses. Share our Suzy holds a couple of fundraisers a year and reinvests the money it raises back into patients in the community, Ward said.

"(Share our Suzy doesn't) pay for medical bills. They don't pay for research. They recognize that cancer patients have basic needs that need to be met during treatment and they pay for those needs," said Scott Broom, the director for oncology services at Roper St. Francis.

Patients who qualify are often reimbursed for utility bills or cell phone bills. Some of them receive gas or grocery gift cards.

"You might think that's frivolous," Broome said, but "sometimes it's harder to meet those needs when you get cancer."

Share our Suzy also raised $200,000 to subsidize a patient navigator at Roper Hospital, a nurse who walks cancer patients through the early days of their diagnosis. In return, Roper St. Francis will rename its breast cancer center at Roper Hospital to "The Suzy McGrane Breast Care Center" at Roper Hospital later this fall, Broom said.

Meanwhile, Becca Edwards is focused on her own journey. Her next scan, which will show if or how much the cancer has spread, is scheduled for early August. She continues chemotherapy and also takes care of Kimber, now two years old, full-time at home. Through it all, she manages to find the silver lining.

"If you focus on the negative, you get depressed. There's no way out from there," she said. "At first, there were a lot, a lot of tears. There still are some tears every now and then, but God's given me an attitude of being positive and that's what I hold on to," she said. "I hope it helps anyone else that's going through it. I've seen new patients come in - their first time - and they're scared as can be. I remember being in their shoes. It's very scary."

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.