Location: Brooklyn, New York
Pamela Esposito-Amery got closer to her older sister, Louisa, as they got older. “We had a great family,” Pamela says of her childhood in Brooklyn that also included an older brother. But with a twelve year age gap between them, it wasn’t until Pamela was an adult that the sisters really bonded and saw how much they had in common. Both are very creative and went to art school, and they learned they also share strong leadership skills. “People also used to say we look a lot alike,” Pamela says.
The sisters only had a short period of time to enjoy their close relationship as adults. At 41, Pamela is now the age Louisa was when she was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Louisa died four years later, at age 45, and Pamela now runs Tell Every Amazing Lady About Ovarian Cancer Louisa M McGregor Ovarian Cancer Foundation (also known as T.E.A.L.) as part of her sister’s legacy. It is one they started together while her sister was still alive and something Pamela promised to keep going in her sister’s honor. Pamela now serves as the CEO, Co-founder and board member of T.E.A.L, (Teal is also the color designation for ovarian cancer.)
Louisa’s cancer took a long time to be diagnosed. She was vigilant about going to the doctor but all of her symptoms were attributed to other things. Her bloating was thought to be due to endomitriosis. Her back pain was probably from an old back injury. “She had all of the symptoms,” Pamela says. “But she was probably misdiagnosed for over a year. No one talked about ovarian cancer.” Louisa and Pamela were determined to change that.
While Louisa was recovering from the first of multiple surgeries, Pamela suggested they do an ovarian cancer walk together. She wanted to inspire her sister and help her connect with the larger ovarian cancer community for support and guidance. She thought that surely there would be an event or walk dedicated to ovarian cancer in New York City. There wasn’t. She did some research and could not find much of anything totally dedicated to ovarian cancer. So she and Louisa decided to create their own walk. “We wanted to take something that was terrible and start something positive,” Pamela says.
The initial plans for the first T.E.A.L Walk in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park were drawn up in Louisa’s hospital bed and the planning then moved to her family’s dining room table. “We were determined to make it happen,” Pamela says. The original idea was to simply gather friends and family for a walk in support of ovarian cancer, with the proceeds of this one-time event to be donated to ovarian cancer research. But at they began getting the word out about the walk they learned that they were tapping into an even bigger need than they had anticipated. “We quickly realized how powerful it was going to be,” Pamela says. People contacted them with relief and enthusiasm, expressing their gratitude for the fact that there was finally something for ovarian cancer. “We realized there was something much bigger going on,” Pamela says. So they began filling out the paperwork to get 5013c status as a nonprofit foundation to process the money that would be generated. “We felt like we were on a treadmill,” Pamela says. “We just kept putting one foot in front of the other and things just kept happening.” The community support and local and national sponsors came through immediately. “Everything just fell into place.”
Pamela had a full-time job in the advertising and marketing industry at the time. Louisa was also working and had children and cancer. It was the cancer that ultimately made it too difficult for Louisa to continue her work with T.E.A.L. “She was basically never in remission,” Pamela says. She had a hysterectomy in 2007 followed by chemo and radiation and multiple subsequent surgeries to deal with recurrences. She was in and out of the hospital and got significantly sicker four years into her battle. That is when Pamela decided to quit her full-time job and focus exclusively on T.E.A.L. “The good news,” she says, “is that a lot of my event planning and contracts and management skills transferred over pretty well.”
Louisa was involved with T.E.A.L until her last breath. “It was her mission and her goal and what kept her fighting,” Pamela says, “because it was so meaningful to her that she was helping so many people.” Louisa fought to live, and was full of hope, until the very last second of her life. She died in March of 2011. Her picture now adorns the stage at the annual T.E.A.L. Walk/Runs in her honor, where her sister continues to make good on her promise to continue the legacy.
Over the eleven years since the first T.E.A.L Walk/Run in Prospect Park in 2009, there have been walks held in nine different cities, drawing thousands of survivors and supporters. In addition to the walks, that have raised over three million dollars, the foundation also offers workshops, programs and community events. “We are the only ovarian cancer community center in existence,” Pamela says. They now have a brick and mortar space in Brooklyn, complete with a teal door, that has made it much easier to continue to expand their programming and offer it nationwide. The programs range from caregiver support to genetic counseling. And they are always available to answer questions and give out information in response to queries from survivors and their loved ones. “If we don’t have the resources they need,” Pamela says, “we will research it and find it for them.” They offer all ovarian cancer survivors a free survivor kit as well as chemo kits and even birthday surprises.
Pamela oversees a staff of eight and over 200 volunteers. “We could not survive without them,” Pamela says. She often thinks about her sister and how immensely proud she would be to see what they were able to create together. She makes an effort to take a moment at each event to remember her sister and reflect on what she continues to offer the ovarian cancer community in her honor. “I look out at everyone and all of these unique stories,” Pamela says. “It is definitely something that makes me proud.”
Hannah and I have participated in the Prospect Park T.E.A.L. event for the last two years and David got to join me at this year’s event in Savannah, Georgia. It is always so inspiring to see so much teal in one place (I’m talking teal tutus, teal capes, teal glitter… you name it!) and to see the teams of supporters each survivor has encouraging her and walking with her. It is also humbling to see the picture of Louisa and all of the other women who did not survive and who are being honored on t-shirts and placards at the walk. I am so glad that Pamela and her staff and volunteers are so dedicated to helping those of us who are survivors and that she was able to turn her own grief into action. Making something good come out of something bad is always commendable, but to do it on such a grand scale and help so many is such a wonderful tribute to both Louisa and her sister.
For more information about Tell Every Amazing Lady About Ovarian Cancer Louisa M. McGregor Ovarian Cancer Foundation also knows as T.E.A.L, visit: http://www.TellEveryAmazingLady.org