A former teacher, Sherri Romanoski, is toasting 10 years as a bag lady.
It is a distinction she is proud to claim since it has empowered more than 45,000 patients and their families as they navigate their medical treatments and battle cancer.
Romanoski is the founder of Bag It, a nonprofit dedicated to providing information and education to newly diagnosed individuals and their families.
"Because I was a teacher, the concept for Bag It came from take-home bags I used to send my students home with because they were so efficient," Romanoski said. "I thought, 'This is what cancer patients need: Something easy to keep everything together.'
"I was so blessed to have my family and friends, along with my oncologist, Dr. Don Brooks, to support me and see where this whole thing would would go."
In 2003, she distributed the first Bag It canvas bag, filled with printed educational materials and distinguished by a tabulated binder in which to organize lab results, insurance papers, other medical records and treatment summary plans.
The bag has evolved to contain books and educational materials from the National Cancer Institute and the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, addressing topics such as navigation of treatment and follow-up care, formation of care teams, talking to doctors, research studies, life after cancer and advice for caregivers.
Publications are also available on the website at www.bagit4u.org, and the nonprofit is conducting a pilot study to determine format preferences for educational materials.
The bags are provided free of charge in English and Spanish to patients with any type of cancer and are distributed through more than 100 clinics, hospitals and physicians' offices statewide.
The nonprofit has also outgrown Romanoski's living room. Although the office remains in her home, bags are now assembled through the local nonprofit Beacon Group.
"It is wonderful because we are helping out an organization that employs people with disabilities in the community," Romanoski said. "They are fantastic to work with and it is a win-win situation. We also employ a small delivery company and local printing company. We keep our business very local."
Bag It has also added another program: In 2010 it began offering an annual conference designed to encourage cancer survivors to give back to their communities, promote networking and support advocacy while fostering self-care and nurturing.
The Third Annual Encouraging and Sustaining Cancer Advocacy Programs and Efforts, or Escape, will be held at Miraval Resort in August; applications are required and attendees are carefully screened.
Romanoski said Escape was inspired by a conference she attended after her battle with breast cancer. It was where she originally conceived the idea for Bag It, and she hopes to offer similar inspiration to other survivors.
"It has been a wonderful advancement of our mission to help other people doing patient education," she said. "Our attendees are going home and affecting hundreds and sometimes thousands of people with what they learn. We are into high impact and that is why we devised this: It is for people who want to reach out to many other people."
One bag at a time, Bag It continues to provide outreach and empower patients and their families, said Dana Adler, events and volunteer coordinator.
"I have a friend whose husband had a recurrence of his cancer, and he got his bag," Adler said. "She said whenever she had to answer questions for his doctors, she had all of his records in the binder. The whole idea of looking at the kitchen counter with all the drugs on it was overwhelming, but she could go right to the medication tab and fax it to anyone in need of the information. Everyone says it helps them feel like they are in more in control of their diagnosis and treatment."
As for Romanoski, she is equally grateful for the opportunities Bag It has afforded her to touch the lives of so many.
"Bag It lets me tap into all my skills from being a teacher and working in the behavioral health field and all I have learned on my cancer journey," she said. "It is a way for me to use all of my skills and at my age that is a wonderful thing."
If You Go
Wine & Dine 2013 to Benefit Bag It.
• When: 6 p.m. June 9.
• Where: Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, 5601 N. Hacienda Del Sol Road.
• Cost: $150 per person.
• Festivities include a 10th Anniversary Celebration, dinner with paired wine tastings and a silent auction of packages including local dining experiences and cultural events.
• For tickets or information, go to www.bagit4u.org or call 241-4381. Special room rates are available at the resort for attendees. Sponsorships for the benefit are also available; all proceeds benefit Bag It.
Contact freelance writer Loni Nannini at email@example.com