MADISON — A small nonprofit founded in 2018 has already had a big impact on the lives of some breast cancer patients.
From paying the rent for a metastatic breast cancer patient so she would not be evicted, to paying for end-of-life medication for a woman with no health insurance, Infinite Strength stepped up.
Roberta Lombardi, of Madison, who was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer in 2016, was determined to help others who did not have her resources — good health insurance, financial means, family support and a good health team.
So from her home in Madison, the former event planner started Infinite Strength in 2018, primarily raising money from its gala, An Evening in Pink. But then COVID hit and the 2020 fundraiser was canceled.
And it changed her plans. So she pivoted.
At the same time, Lombardi discovered there was a large underserved group — single moms with breast cancer and women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.
“We were helping underserved and under-insured women — it didn’t matter whether they were married or single. But what we found was that the majority of women were single moms that were in financial need,” Lombardi said.
“I mean really severely in need,” she added.
But, Infinite Strength was already branching out before the pandemic.
In December 2019, Lombardi started “Make a holiday wish” for a breast cancer patient during Christmastime. Lombardi’s first recipient was a woman who lived in New Haven and whose name she received from a hospital.
“She was living in her car and she had five children — three of which were younger — under 13 and she was dying of metastatic breast cancer,” Lombardi recalled.
“She was crying, ‘I can’t give my kids a holiday,’” Lombardi said. “I said what can I do to grant you a wish?”
The woman finally did receive a subsidy for an apartment and Infinite Strength paid her bills, bought her food and presents for her family.
“The kids all wrote me a note and they gave me their Christmas lists — each one,” Lombardi said. “It was just heartbreaking.”
Lombardi hired a professional photographer and did a photo shoot with the children at Christmas “so the kids would have a lasting memory.”
“She (the patient) texted me, ‘We haven’t smiled like that forever’ and she then passed,” Lombardi said.
When Lombardi got home that day, “I couldn’t get out of my own way, I was crying, I was miserable,” she said.
Imagining what it’s like for someone less fortunate is what spurred Lombardi to start Infinite Strength. She got the idea when her husband was going over the bills for her treatment — totaling about $80,000, which her insurance fortunately did cover. She wondered how other women who did not have insurance or financial resources coped.
While in treatment, getting chemo at the hospital it cemented the idea for her.
“I could hear women talk about it with their caregivers — ‘I can’t afford this. I can’t afford my medicine. I can’t afford my co-pays. I can’t afford to not work,’” Lombardi recalled.
That’s when she first came up with the idea for the gala. Last year’s cancellation only stiffened her resolve to continue her outreach.
Meeting everyday needs
This is when she decided that Infinite Strength would give recurring funds to single moms with metastatic cancer, who were in stage 4.
For single mothers of any age and in any stage of cancer, they will give up to $1,000 a year for rent, utilities or the mortgage.
Women with metastatic cancer, she said, “their average life span is two to three years. They need help that entire time.”
In the past three years, Lombardi’s modest nonprofit has raised more than $300,000.
And, once she narrowed her focus in 2020, “it resonated with donors,” she said.
Lombardi points to the fact that there are no administrative costs as she takes no salary, there is no overhead as she runs it out of her home and her board of directors are all volunteers.
“I give the money directly to the patients.”
Lombardi became directly involved and changed the application, which is now online.
“You have a doctor submit a note, verifying her stage, a social worker puts a note in, she uploads it and I personally do every single one.”
Donor Rachel Borelli, learned about Infinite strength through her late sister’s oncologist, who also was Lombardi’s doctor.
“My sister had just passed away from breast cancer when I met Roberta — it was literally not even a month my sister had been dead,” she said.
“We just hit it off,” Borelli said. The first phone call was about an hour and a half and “I told her the whole story — I was crying me eyes out.”
Borelli said she believes in Lombardi and what the organization is trying to accomplish.
“I believe in it. She’s focused directly on helping women with their needs,” she said.
“I know where my money is going — I have peace of mind knowing its in the hands of women who are fighting breast cancer.”
Borelli has been involved with starting an online support group during COVID, through Infinite Strength for breast cancer patients and survivors called HOPE (healing, openhearted, patient, empowerment).
Borelli said this was what she was meant to do after she lost her sister.
“That’s what God put me here to do — after my sister died — was to realize what a great need these women have,” she said. “These women don’t have people fighting for them and my sister had a ton of people fighting for her.”
During the quarantine, “These cancer patients have nobody. And you can’t go to chemo with anyone anymore,” Borelli noted.
“I think of my sister all the time because she had an army with her.”
Lombardi can reel off story after story about connecting with women.
Not all of them have a happy ending though.
Lombardi was working against the clock to help get a woman’s two children under 10, airline tickets to see her before she died in a Philadelphia hospital.
It didn’t happen in time: “She died that day,” Lombardi said quietly.
“Her kids never got to see her — these are the kinds of things we’re seeing.”
Lombardi has partnered with 24 hospitals and gives mostly in Connecticut, but will help patients in other states.
A special day
Lombardi decided to make the Make a Holiday Wish a tradition since the first one was so successful.
Cancer patient Robin Andrews, who is stage 4, felt she had her Christmas wishes answered this past holiday.
“They made it so we could have Christmas,” Andrews said.
“If it wasn’t for her,” she said, crying softly over the phone. “For us it was beyond help. I just don’t think we could have had a nicer Christmas.”
“If it wasn’t for all of them helping us — just to ease that burden — cancer is hard enough to go through.”
A social worker recommended Andrews, who has two children, one 17 and one adult at home, 31.
“They didn’t even hesitate. If it wasn’t for them helping us I wouldn’t have been able to have Christmas for my kids. I can’t thank them enough,” she said.
For “just a little bit,” Andrews could forget about her diagnosis and enjoy her family on the holiday.
“When you’ve got cancer and feel like ‘how am I going to do this?’”
“They really care about you. Even after the financial help — they don’t stop there. They call you and see how you are doing.”
“These people to me are like heaven-sent angels.”