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Not For Profit: American Cancer Society

May 14, 2006 – The time is approaching for the fifth annual American Cancer Society Relay for Life, but the work of the society goes on all year, every day.
"The relay is our fund-raiser," says Candia Petersen, the local ACS chapter president, "it keeps us going." Last year the event raised almost $300,000, its best take ever.
That may seem like a lot of money, but it has to cover a multitude of things. "We have to watch every penny," Petersen says.
She looks around at her new three-room office in the Medical Arts building. "It's a step up from our other office, lots more room," she says, "but we would like some furniture."
Indeed the reception area has no furniture at all, unless you count a couple of cardboard boxes. Two bookshelves host some pamphlets.
We sit in what Petersen hopes will become a conference room, now barren save for a table and a few chairs. A couple tables in the other room are stacked with ACS literature.
The ACS is the biggest not for profit in the world, but each chapter operates on its own.
"We operate under the Puerto Rico [chapter]," Petersen explsains. "Because we are unique – we pay for people to travel for treatment — we were given the option to keep all our money."
Petersen has been society president for two years, and she anticipates another year. "It's supposed to be a two-year term, but it likely will be three," she says. "I want to have things running smoothly when I turn it over."
Petersen, now in her late 60s, was a volunteer for nine years before assuming the presidency. She has the energy of someone half her age, and she handles many things "smoothly." She raised a son and a daughter: Dr. Bert Petersen, nationally known cancer specialist and one of the primary forces behind the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute; and Barbara Petersen, WVWI morning talk show host and chairwoman of this year's cancer relay.
"I worked two jobs," she says, "and we never wanted for anything. I have been fortunate."
Daytimes, Petersen works at the Justice Department in the Child Support Division, a full-time job. And she works nights, Saturdays, holidays and whatever is needed to keep things running at ACS. "I like to help people," Petersen says, "I do what I can; I don't like to see people suffer."
Her compassion is not confined to the Virgin Islands. She traveled recently to Acra, Africa with her son on a medical mission. Dr. Petersen is medical director of the Darkest Africa Medical Mission.
"We visited people living in mud huts with no running water or electricity," she marveled. "There are 17,000 patients suffering from malaria, and other diseases. It's unbelievable. The people are so friendly; when they greet you, it's like coming home." And she says she plans to go along on her son's next visit.
The local ACS office has one big plus, a paid employee. "We have only one paid employee," she says, introducing Rose Magras, who handles the day-to-day management of the office. "She does everything, "Petersen says. "But we have to relieve her. We have to give her lunch hours, or she can't go."
Petersen holds her head, with a wan smile. "I have to keep running back and forth from work," she says.
The "we" Petersen refers to is a band of about 20 or so volunteers – though the number swells to the hundreds who help with the cancer relay – who handle everything from travel arrangements to accounting, secretarial duties, or whatever else is needed. "We can always use more volunteers," Petersen says. "Lots of our volunteers are cancer survivors."
Though the $300,000 the 2005 Relay for Life raised last year may seem like a handsome operating budget, it has to be stretched to the last penny.
"Puerto Rico examines every single cent," Petersen says. She illustrates: "We failed to submit a receipt for $6 worth of postage stamps, and you should have seen the letters. They put you through the eye of the needle."
"Florida is just as bad," she says. "They scrutinize everything. We are under the microscope. It's off the wall."
She explains her budget. "We try to hold it to $1,500 a person, which isn't that much," she says.
"That has to include travel for off-island treatment, which is a big expense," she says. "And often, the patient cannot travel alone, and we have to pay for a companion."
Won't the Kimelman institute, which should be fully operational soon, help to alleviate some of the travel expense?
Ironically, Petersen says it will not, at least not directly. "We cannot refer anyone to the institute, even though it is right here, that is against ACS policy." However, she says, the institute likely will provide care for many local patients and cut down considerably on travel expenses.
She says the society is strictly limited on what it can and cannot do. It cannot make physician referrals or any other kind of referral – no hospitals, no clinics. It doesn't dispense medication nor suggest pharmacies. "We can't operate our own pharmacy," Petersen says. "We can't do anything to show a profit."
Cancer screenings are a big part of the society's task, and one Petersen is proud of. The ACS pays for cancer screening for breast and prostate cancer.
She said screenings are done at the Department of Health and the Schneider Medical Center radiology lab. "Last year we did about 100 or so screenings for people who have no insurance." She says, "Getting it caught early is the key."
The cancer patients follow a process. "They fill out an application, and they must bring us a pathologist's report, which we send to Florida. We have to make certain that it is cancer they are suffering from."
She recalls an incident. "We had one patient whom we were supplying $700 a month for medication. She called to find out about her prescription once, and it was revealed that she didn't have cancer at all. The prescription was for diabetes medication."
The patient finds a doctor, and makes whatever arrangements he or she desires for treatment and for travel, if necessary. "'Then," Petersen says, "we can assist them with the arrangements they have made."
There is much information available in the office. "Kmart donated a television, and now we can show videos on cancer treatments or any other related subject," Petersen says.
"If only we had a place for them to sit down," she says. "We are in need of so many things. We need a computer, a fax machine, some chairs, a conference table," Petersen says. "Please mention that in your article. Maybe an angel will come along."
An angel, in the form of the annual relay is coming along June 24 and 25. Barbara Petersen, relay chairwoman, says, "We waited until after Carnival, that's when the real work begins. It's too early to say how many teams we will have this year, but we have approximately 490 people, and probably more than 100 teams this year.
"It's a 15-member team, and each team raises $1,500. Each member raises a minimum of $100," she says. "We've come a long way in five years. We had 23 members on the first team. Last year we spent $90,000 on travel alone. We have 68 active people in need of assistance now."
She offered an impressive statistic. "We have helped 400 people in the last five years," Petersen said.
Details on this year's relay will soon be publicized in its campaign kickoff, Petersen said. "Our goal is to raise more than $300,000 this year."
The ACS can be reached at 775-5373.
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