Five for fighting

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Sisters and UGA alumni Megan Lewis, left, of Athens and Sara O’Brien of Audubon, N.J., started the annual breast cancer awareness campaign BreastFest. Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker.

Sara O’Brien was 15 when her mother, Tyanna O’Brien passed away from breast cancer. Years later she found the journal her mother kept during her last year of life and was moved with “glorious sadness.” She was also moved to action.

“The next day I met friends for coffee at Blue Sky and said, ‘We’ve got to put together an event. A music event.’ No one had a freakin’ clue what to do, or what we were doing, or anything about it… and we put together this little concert event,” she says.

Eleven years later, and a few doors down from where Blue Sky Coffee once stood, Sara (AB ’00) and her sister Megan O’Brien Lewis (AB ’93) are talking to Starbucks barista Alexei Gural, whose band performed at the first BreastFest in February 1999.

“Oh yeah, I remember when that first got started… it was great,” he says, reminiscing about the performance with Sara.

Sara and Megan, along with sisters Bridget O’Brien Mink (BFA ’92), Anne O’Brien and Katie O’Brien, founded the Tyanna Barre O’Brien Breast Cancer Foundation in 1998 to honor their late mother. BreastFest is the major fundraising event for the foundation.

“What we’re good at is getting the community together to raise money,” says Sara, who with Bridget and Katie lives in New Jersey where the family was raised. “And we put the money in organizations that do a really good job serving the community as far as breast cancer and cancer services go.”

Ninety percent of all the money raised at BreastFest events goes toward local charities of the foundation’s choosing. In Athens, it’s the St. Mary’s Women’s Diagnostic Center, which was able to purchase its first digital mammography machine with the help of money from BreastFest 2010. The other 10 percent goes to the foundation—they hope to someday have enough money for scholarships, endowments and sponsoring research. But the main emphasis of BreastFest is to think local.

In adition to Athens and New Jersey, they hold BreastFest events in Baltimore, where Anne lives, and Philadelphia, and since 1999 have raised over $750,000 for patient care—which includes everything from medication costs not covered by insurance to yoga programs and educational services.

They stress not just awareness, but also action. They send monthly e-mails reminding women to perform breast self-examinations, and a nation of health-conscious, informed citizens is what Sara considers the foundation’s end goal.

It is “for each of us to be responsible… to teach our children and friends and families to take responsibility for our bodies,” she says. “Take care of your bodies through fitness and wellness, and then God forbid, if you were to get diagnosed with cancer or breast cancer or anything, you’d know where to go. You could pick up the phone and call St. Mary’s… I think that’s an attainable goal.”

And despite the serious subject matter, they keep a sense of humor about the events. “Save the Girls” was one T-shirt slogan.

“We’re not trying to make light of a scary, sad situation. We’re just trying to make it fun.

Our mom was about having fun,” says Megan, who lives in the Athens area. “We think of it like a little music festival. It’s fun.”

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Upcoming BreastFest events are scheduled in Athens on March 26 and in Haddon Township, N.J., on May 14. For more information and event dates in other cities go to http://www.breastfest.org.