Breast cancer survivor’s speech highlights Tree of Love lighting ceremony

Published 12:38 pm Thursday, December 2, 2021

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DOWAGIAC — A local breast cancer survivor had one piece of advice for attendees gathered for an event Wednesday evening – get screened for cancer.

During the Ascension Borgess-Lee Foundation Tree of Love lighting ceremony at Farr Park, 501 Main St., Deb Friske told the crowd of her battle with breast cancer, her family history of cancer and advised everyone to take advantage of the Tree of Love program for breast cancer services.

‘No stranger to cancer’

In February 2020, Friske discovered a lump in her breast. Shortly thereafter, a biopsy confirmed her fears that it was breast cancer.

As the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming more severe, Friske was traveling to appointments and treatments, some of which were delayed due to complications related to the pandemic. During that time, she said she relied on family, friends and coworkers at Wolverine Mutual Insurance for support.

“My husband was my driver, but couldn’t attend some appointments with me because of COVID,” Friske said. “I had a very wonderful support team made up of my husband, my granddaughter, my sister – she was my strength at the time. Also, I had many aunts and many special friends, including my Wolverine Mutual company friends. Bruce and Jim Laing were very kind and understanding to me during the COVID and cancer. I couldn’t ask for a better place.”

Friske had the lump removed in April, and afterward did her chemotherapy at Ascension Borgess-Lee – but it did not happen without some trepidation.

“I’m no stranger to cancer,” she said. “I lost my mom, my dad and my youngest sister. … I was scared to start chemo because my youngest sister went through it, and we did lose her. So of course, I had that in the back of my mind. But because of some very special oncology nurses here in Dowagiac, I started the regimen.”

When she was released from chemotherapy, Friske said her sisters put together a celebration. She exited the hospital to a sea of family and friends, holding pink signs of encouragement.

Now cancer-free, Friske said she still gets her yearly mammogram and wants every woman and man to do so as well.

“If for some reason you can’t afford to do that on your own, please reach out to this organization,” she said. “They are here and willing to help you.”

Tree of Love

Since 2011, the Tree of Love campaign has provided funding for mammograms and other breast cancer services to local residents who would otherwise not be able to afford them. If treatment is needed at a non-local hospital, the program will still cover those expenses.

At Ascension Borgess-Lee, 270 breast cancer services have been provided through the program, according to hospital Chief Administrative Officer Natalie Ryder.

“One in eight women you will meet tomorrow will develop cancer,” Ryder said during the ceremony. “One in five can’t afford lifesaving mammograms, and Ascension Borgess Tree of Love campaign makes a difference. … Your dollars make a difference. Donations make a difference. You, the community here, keep this program alive and is saving lives in Cass County.”

President of Ascension Borgess Peter Bergmann also was on hand at the Tree of Love lighting ceremony, which is in its 11th year.

“It’s an extraordinary time to have the ability to have this program, the Tree of Love, and to be able to provide screenings for women,” he said. “I can’t tell you how meaningful that is and how important that is to our community, because that’s not going on a lot right now. We’re seeing a lot of sick people that may put off preventative screening. We need to continue this; we need to stress its importance. As we take a look at the Tree of Love – it’s great that we’re raising funds for it, but also ensuring that women are accessing those funds to be able to get those screenings. So, this is a wonderful event.”

Each pink light on the Tree of Love represents an $8 donation from community members and businesses.

The campaign has raised $16,400 of its $17,000 goal with one month remaining but still needs more people in need of services to come forward, according to Ascension Borgess-Lee Foundation Development Officer Beth Cripe.

“Numbers are continuing to increase, but we still need to get the word out,” she said. “We can’t stress enough the importance of letting people know that this is here.”

Those in need of breast cancer services can contact Ascension Borgess Central Scheduling at (269) 226-6999. For further questions, contact Cripe at or (269) 783-3026.

Foundation chairman Jeremy Truitt thanked Honor Credit Union, Lyons Industries, Lisa Koenig, Terry Groth, Kathleen Judd and Victor and Lisa Shank for their contributions to the foundation and event. Truitt also thanked John Mitchell and Mitchell Lawn Care and Landscape for approximately 1,500 lights on the Tree of Love.