By Pamela Rafalow Grossman
October 15, 2019

When Debbie Cantwell got breast cancer in 2006, she saw just how devastating financially — in addition to physically — the disease can be. Now she’s trying to make life for other women a little easier, one gift card at a time.

More than 250,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in the U.S. this year. In addition to immensely draining medical treatments, many of these women will face months of lost wages and, of course, hefty medical bills. Younger women, without Social Security or Medicare, can be among the hardest hit.

Cantwell, who is now 54 and lives in Renton, Wash., founded the Pink Daisy Project in 2008 to help young women with breast cancer make ends meet. While big-name charities have lofty goals of preventing or curing the disease, Cantwell’s goal is relatively modest. The Pink Daisy Project gives grants in the form of gift cards from stores like Target and Applebees. Each grant is for $275. $200 of this is for groceries; the remainder can be spent on meals out or gas.

Debbie Cantwell
Photography by Hayley Young

Not everyone with breast cancer is eligible. Recipients must be 45 or under and must have had radiation, chemotherapy or surgery in the past three months. Grants are limited to one per person, unless the woman has stage four cancer and is in ongoing treatment. Those rules have allowed Cantwell to provide assistance to hundreds of women in need across the U.S. In the last five years, the Pink Daisy Project has handed out 30 to 40 grants per month, she says.

“Our intent is to help when someone is most debilitated,” Cantwell explains. “It’s a smaller amount than I’d want to send, but it’s a help. Groceries, a few dinners out so they don’t have to cook.”

An unmet need

Cantwell says she had the idea for the charity after comparing her cancer experience with those of some other women going through the same thing.

Cantwell received support from family, friends, and even near-strangers—for instance, though she was newly hired when diagnosed, her coworkers donated vacation days so she would not lose pay when she was out. But others weren’t so lucky. “I was shocked by the wash of fundraising in the name of ‘breast cancer awareness,’” she says, “and how none of that money would go to women with the disease. Women in treatment need help managing their day-to-day needs.”

Cantwell, who also works full-time as a copy writer, spends about 10 hours per week on her charity. “When I get home from my job, I work on my Pink Daisy emails. I get the gift cards on weekends. And I handwrite a note to each woman, so she’ll know someone truly cares.”

Debbie Cantwell
Photography by Hayley Young

That doesn’t leave much time for traditional fund-raising. Cantwell says donations come mostly from other survivors. Beyond that, contributors are sometimes “friends and family of those we have helped. And, sadly, when a woman dies, her family will often designate a donation to the Pink Daisy Project in lieu of flowers.”

Cantwell keeps overhead low. She doesn’t keep an office and works on a laptop in her living room. Her paperwork sits in tubs in her garage. She reimburses herself $100 per week; she also pays a bookkeeper $100 a month and her mom, who pays Cantwell’s phone bill, $35. The rest goes to essentials like postage, printer ink and, of course, gift cards.

A side gig

Cantwell, who also has two teenage children, does her best to balance the charity with her other commitments. Things don’t always go smoothly. “Sometimes I want to cry,” she admits. “It’s so much work, and I have so little time.”

Still the thought of other young women out there, struggling to cope with breast cancer while at the same time staying above water financially, keeps her going. In the long run, she says, her ambition is to grow the Pink Daisy Project to the point where she can work on it full time: “I tattooed our logo on my arm, to remind myself not to give up.”

Debbie Cantwell
Photography by Hayley Young

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