News anchor  brings ‘Compassionate Hands & Hearts’ to breast cancer patients

Editor’s Note: The News-Gazette spoke with longtime WFTV anchorwoman Vanessa Echols and breast cancer survivor on Monday, the first day of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, about fighting the disease and helping others do the same. Look out for a story about breast cancer in each Saturday edition of the News-Gazette during the month of October.

“You have to have an attitude adjustment when you go through cancer,” says WFTV anchorwoman Vanessa Echols.

A survivor herself, Echols works closely with breast cancer patients year-round through her nonprofit Compassionate Hands & Hearts. She often tells them “attitude is everything.”

When Echols was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in 2004, she decided she was going to beat the disease.

After that, no matter what she was going through, no matter how bad she felt, Echols’ end goal was the same. “And that was being in treatment, being in remission and being cured,” she said.

It wasn’t an easy fight.

Her treatment plan involved six months of chemotherapy, 30 radiation treatments and four surgeries, including a mastectomy and reconstruction. She later developed a condition called lymphedema, which is why she still wears a compression sleeve on her left arm to control swelling.

She founded Compassionate Hands & Hearts in 2007 after helping a breast cancer patient get to her weekly chemotherapy appointments.

The organization grew organically as Echols and friends began helping more patients with unmet needs. At monthly get-togethers, the all-volunteer group provides a handful of breast cancer patients with money, gifts and a chance to commune with those who know what it’s like to fight for their lives.  

“With Compassionate Hands & Hearts I meet all different kinds of people in all different kinds of situations. Some have given up completely. Some don’t care if they’ve only got a short time to live, whether it’s a month or a week, they say, ‘I’m going to fight this with all I have.’ That’s what it takes,” Echols told the News-Gazette Monday, the start of national Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Early detection is another message the longtime local news anchor preaches.

“You should do a breast self-exam every month so you’ll know if there’s been a change,” she said. “You have to pay attention to your body.”

One of the greatest misconceptions about breast cancer is that you’re not at risk if it doesn’t run in your family, she said. Another is that it only affects women. Each year, more than 2,000 men are also diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S.

On Thursday, Echols and WFTV profiled a patient receiving a mammogram on Facebook Live.

“There are still people who don’t want to get a mammogram because they have a fear of everything doctor and everything medical...we wanted to show people the procedure and what they can expect,” Echols said. “I always say that cancer is way more uncomfortable than a mammogram; cancer hurts a lot worse than a mammogram.”

Not only have there been major strides in breast cancer detection and treatment over the years, but people are more comfortable talking about the disease now, she said.

“People have finally realized that having cancer isn’t a crime,” she said. “And there are still people who don’t want to tell anyone. You’d be surprised. Even in 2019. We tell them it’s not their fault,” she said.

“It’s about making the subject more normal so people feel comfortable talking about breast cancer, or any cancer.”