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San Diego nonprofit Pink Strength redefines life with cancer for young adults and their families

Kristian Bayan and Josef Gutierrez at Pink Strength's first annual fundraiser in October 2021. Photo: Kris Saradpon

Kristian Bayan, a breast cancer survivor and president of San Diego-based nonprofit Pink Strength, is on a mission to “redefine life with cancer” among adolescents and young adults like her.

“Cancer is difficult at any age, but younger patients face different challenges,” Bayan said.

According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 85,000 adolescents and young adults (AYAs) between the ages of 15 and 39 will be diagnosed with cancer in the United States in 2023. Within this age group, they represent four percent of all cancer diagnoses, with breast cancer being the most prevalent type among them.

However, cancer researchers and advocates say AYAs remain underrepresented in clinical research studies. The absence of comprehensive research and specialized care for AYA patients has led to delays in diagnosis, insufficient support tailored to their distinct needs, and challenges in securing insurance or financial assistance.

In 2022, Bayan and her husband, Josef Gutierrez, established Pink Strength to provide free services to patients, survivors, and caregivers, bridging the gap between knowledge and support. These offerings include a WhatsApp support group chat, monthly Zoom calls, haircuts, custom care packages, vision boards, and community events made possible through partnerships with local businesses and donors. A safe space and support system for young people directly impacted by cancer, the nonprofit has been instrumental in raising awareness about the critical need for AYA-specific medical care and resources.

“When you get this diagnosis, it’s often out of the blue, so your mind starts racing. I’m glad we can be that resource for somebody to make the process a little easier when everything’s rushing like that, and the diagnosis hits,” Gutierrez said.

From Survivor to Advocate of AYAs

Pink Strength was born out of Bayan’s own journey and recovery from breast cancer.

It was January 2021. Bayan was only 30 years old when she found a lump in her breast that caused her concern. She immediately contacted her primary physician, who ordered a mammogram and ultrasound. Bayan had no family history of the disease, but when both tests showed irregularities, her doctor ordered a biopsy. By mid-April, she had a mastectomy and reconstruction and was referred to chemotherapy shortly after.

“They studied my tumor a little more and told me that chemo would give me a better chance of long-term survival and make sure the cancer doesn’t come back,” Bayan said.

Bayan believes that the swift medical intervention was due to cautionary measures taken because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Had it been a different time, her concerns might have been given less urgency because of her age, she said.

During her recovery, Bayan took time off work to focus on her physical, mental, and emotional health. It became clear that not all patients had the support network or financial means to make the same decision.

“Many other people I’ve met with breast cancer continued working through their treatment. I realized how stressful their treatment was compared to mine because they still had to take on their everyday stresses of work and make these life-or-death decisions about their health,” she said.

Bayan recalled the struggles of finding age-specific resources and community spaces for AYAs diagnosed with cancer who were often at pivotal junctures in their lives, such as launching careers, starting families, or pursuing higher education. The groups she encountered felt corporate and lacked the personal connection she was looking for.

“People shouldn’t have to work or stress when it comes to their health—when we’re under the age of 40 and diagnosed, that’s something we often worry about,” Bayan said. “That was my first inkling to start something that would give back to this community and provide options to heal in a way that works for them.”

Bayan and Gutierrez launched a t-shirt fundraiser called “Pink Strength” as a way to benefit a local breast cancer nonprofit and support other patients. The fundraiser evolved into a successful event, which inspired Bayan to apply for an official nonprofit status. Today, Pink Strength is a community of over a dozen dedicated volunteers who assist individuals and families in navigating treatment, recovery, and life after cancer.

The Pink Strength Group at the organization's second annual fundraiser in October 2022 at 1904 Fitness in Kearny Mesa, San Diego. Photo: Roxanna Sta Ana

Beyond the diagnosis: Building community and spaces for healing

Katrina Tolentino was 30 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer after noticing a lump in 2018. At the time, she was still breastfeeding her 18-month-old daughter.

“A lot of things were going through my mind when I was diagnosed. My mom was a breast cancer survivor, too, but she was diagnosed at 49. No one could have expected that I would go through the same thing,” Tolentino said. “While we were able to get the treatment she needed, seeing her go through it was hard, but it made us stronger as a family and helped us be more prepared for when I was diagnosed.”

Tolentino says her primary doctor felt reluctant to consider the possibility that it was cancer, given her age and symptoms. Had her OBGYN not already scheduled an ultrasound, her detection and recovery process might have unfolded differently.

“I underwent chemo, surgeries, radiation, and ongoing treatments. To this day, I’m still on hormone therapy. So I kind of already knew in my mind from what I had experienced back then that I wanted to volunteer and do my part in helping others that are going through what I went through,” Tolentino said.

Tolentino remembered attending her first meeting with Pink Strength and feeling an instant sense of welcome and belonging as a new volunteer. Since joining the team in 2023, she has been able to use her creativity as an artist, share her story, and connect with others who might feel alone in their cancer journey.

“I’ve met so many people through Pink Strength in the short time I’ve been with them and have learned so much. I finally feel like I’m able to contribute and do my part in giving back as a survivor. And it’s been helping me heal, too, along the way,” she said.

Tolentino is a strong advocate of early detection and encourages people to be aware of the first signs and symptoms of cancer. As an AYA cancer survivor, she hopes her story will inspire young people and immigrant women like her to take the initiative and get tested regardless of their age.

“I saw this quote once, and it resonated with me that I keep saying it over and over again. It’s ‘you can be cancer-free, but never free of cancer’ because life after cancer—it’s there, it happened, and you have to work through it. It’ll always be a part of us moving forward,” Tolentino said.

Kat Tolentino is a breast cancer survivor and Pink Strength volunteer. Photo: @janeroblesphoto

Support for family caregivers

Pink Strength treasurer Laika Roy is one of Bayan’s closest friends. She lost her grandmother Gloria, whom she affectionately called Nanay, to lung cancer in 2011.

“Her passing had a really big impact on me because that was the first death of someone close to me that I experienced in my life,” Roy said. “My mom’s first instinct was not to tell me the actual diagnosis and treatment plan because that was her way of protecting me.”

Roy reflected on her time at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), commuting home each weekend to assist her aunt, who was her grandmother’s primary caregiver. Roy helped where she could, from meal preparation, clothing changes, and bathroom assistance to accompanying her Nanay to chemo appointments.

“Most importantly, though, I just wanted to be present, be there with her, and spend as much time together,” Roy said.

A growing body of research in recent years has brought attention to the role and experience of family caregivers and the challenges they face. Health professionals recommend supportive interventions, such as skills training and therapeutic counseling, to help improve caregivers’ information needs, coping strategies, physical and psychological well-being, and overall quality of life.

Services like Pink Strength’s WhatsApp Support group and High Vibe Support Tribe, a monthly Zoom call every first Thursday with mind, body, and spirit empowerment health coach Anuschka Alborzian, provide cancer survivors, patients, and caretakers like Roy opportunities to connect and share with others.

“On the last call, we talked about a recurring theme of self-care and self-love and being more self-compassionate towards yourself,” Roy said. “Even as caregivers, you get burnt out. It’s tiring and draining, and it depletes you, but you still have to care for yourself. You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

Learning about the experiences of AYAs and meeting survivors through Pink Strength’s support groups has helped Roy approach her work as a caregiver and turn her perspective of cancer and treatment into a more hopeful one. Beyond her role as treasurer, she supports marketing, event planning, and community outreach.

“Being a part of Pink Strength, I’ve been able to meet some really amazing survivors, thrivers, and patients going through treatment and empathize with the anxiety, fear, and unknowingness of everything,” Roy said.

Pink Strength Treasurer Laika Roy. Photo: Josef Gutierrez

Moving forward with strength

As Pink Strength continues to grow, co-founders Bayan and Gutierrez are brainstorming ways to ensure the work benefits and reflects the diverse experiences of directly impacted community members. Each October, the organization hosts an annual breast cancer awareness fundraiser to support patients and families and bridge the financial gap necessary to thrive during cancer treatment and recovery.

“Every person’s experience is different. It’s important to understand the differences to learn how to support the bigger picture and any niche areas we can help,” Bayan said.

Driven by a commitment to transform the conversation about cancer into one of empowerment and resilience, Bayan envisions a future where people have the resources to regain control of their lives and fight back.

“If there’s anything I want cancer patients or survivors to know is sharing your story makes a difference,” Bayan said. “It’s hard to be vulnerable and share this very sensitive experience, but you never know who’s looking for you and how you might change that person’s life.”

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