If you frequent Pearl Street Bagels in Wilson for morning coffees and shmears, you will have noticed that one of the friendliest smiles behind the counter - that of Kat Clauson - has been missing the past few months.
Clauson, 35, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer this fall. A cancer diagnosis is always a hard blow, but Clauson had been in remission from her last bout of cancer, anaplastic astrocytoma, for seven years.
With regular chemotherapy treatments in Idaho Falls and road trips to Seattle for special surgeries, Clauson had to take an indefinite sabbatical from caffeinating and fueling Jacksonites. It was a scary time - not just going through treatments but figuring out how to pay for them, too.
"Cancer expenses are terrible, but there's also life happening around you while you're in treatment," Clauson said. "I was nervous looking two months ahead, thinking, 'If I'm not well enough to work at the bagel shop, which I'd done for seven years, and I have to pay this [bill] then I'm totally screwed.'"
That's when Clauson got a call from Soroptimist of Jackson Hole, a nonprofit that helps other nonprofits dedicated to women and children. Clauson had worked with Soroptimist for years modeling in Bras for a Cause, an annual fundraiser that raises money for the Women's Health Care Fund run through St. John's Hospital Foundation. After Clauson's new diagnosis, her friends from Bras for a Cause were among the first to call.
"The Soroptimist of Jackson Hole have just been like angels in my life," Clauson said. "I don't know if it's because I was involved for so many years, or I'm just guessing it's because they are incredible women, but they reached out to me and helped me when I didn't really have any other options."
Health care, so much more
Soroptimist referred Clauson to the foundation's Women's Health Care Fund. Each month the foundation doles out approximately $8,500 for a broad range of expenses to women in need. The fund covers everything from preventive services (mammograms, supporting high-risk maternity patients, wellness checkups) to essential nonmedical expenses incurred while undergoing treatment (child care, groceries or travel).
"This fund is so important," said Rachel Merrell, director of development for the hospital foundation. "Many women in our community are unable to afford their medical bills or would forgo necessary treatments if it weren't for the support of this fund." While most things related to insurance and medical bills involve a lot of fine print and red tape, the Women's Health Care Fund does not micromanage its gifts.
"It's such an incredible fund because they don't dictate how the money is necessarily spent when it comes down to it," said Clauson, who used the help to pay for insurance, as well as the smaller, extraneous costs of treatment that added up over time: hotel rooms, gas and other travel expenses.
Women who live in or near Teton County can apply at TinyURL.com/womenshealthjh to receive money from the fund. Merrell emphasized that it is not just for women in an immediate health care crisis like Clauson was this past fall.
"Preventative care can catch medical issues before they become emergencies," Merrell said.
For example, "early detection of breast cancer with screening mammography means that treatment can be started earlier in the course of the disease, possibly before it has spread."
Modeling for medical care
After months of treatment, a full hysterectomy and a handful of surgeries, Clauson is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
"It was an awful winter, I'm not going to lie about that, but it really makes a huge difference to be able to think about summer and know that also I'm OK now," Clauson said. On May 11 Clauson will celebrate her road to recovery at the 14th annual Bras for a Cause. She isn't modeling this year's show, "How the Breast Was Won," but she and a group of women she met through Soroptimist are attending the busty fundraiser together.
"We're getting a table just to support the girls that are doing it because it is not an easy thing to get up there," she said.
Each year women wearing specially designed bras that range from sexy to ridiculous show their stuff on the Cowboy runway. The bras are auctioned off in real time. In recent years the event has made upward of $80,000 annually by auctioning off the specialty bras with other packages (hotel stays, dinner gift cards, golf outings, etc.) included.
While some funds go to Soroptimist, the majority of the proceeds are donated directly to the Women's Health Care Fund. For models like Clauson, Bras for a Cause is an opportunity to celebrate shared womanhood and friendship while raising money for other women in need.
After a double mastectomy during her first round of cancer in her early 20s, Clauson had reconstructive surgery that helped her fill out some of the largest bras and corsets in Bras for a Cause in recent years.
"I always liked to say when I was doing Bras that I lead with personality and big boobs," she said, a trait she became known for.
"Kat was a force as a Bras for a Cause model. She exuded a charisma and infectious energy that will forever go unmatched," said Augusta Friendsmith, a longtime model, designer and sponsor for the event who first introduced Clauson to the group in 2014.
"We will never forget our 'dance lessons' backstage nor the bold, open and confident way she carried herself and inspired the rest of us to do the same."
Friendsmith is a bit of a Bras legend herself, having designed and modeled the highest-grossing bra, which garnered $9,500 last year.
Though shaking your stuff, or watching someone else shake theirs, may seem like all fun and games, the money Friendsmith's bra raised - and other cash raised at the event - went straight to the foundation's program, which fills an important community health care gap. "Health care is a fundamental human right," Friendsmith said. "No woman should ever have to choose between groceries and child care or receiving life-saving medical procedures."
Runway stars and 'sisters'
Being a two-time cancer survivor, Bras for a Cause model and Women's Health Care Fund beneficiary has underscored the importance of the event for Clauson.
"It's such a funny thing to have been a part of raising the money for that organization without truly understanding the fact that Soroptimist is legitimately helping women in the hardest time of their life," Clauson said.
The support Clauson has received, and continues to receive, from Soroptimist extends way beyond financial assistance. After years of taking her shirt off for the cause, Clauson said she is forever bonded to her fellow models and Soroptimist women.
"They're not just friends, more like sisters, because you get to reconnect after not seeing each other for a couple of months, and it's like you just fall right back into that joking, sister mentality," she said. "I'm an only child, so that's the closest thing that I have to that."
With cancer treatment, medicine only goes so far, Clauson said. For everything else, she had Soroptomist.
"One of the most important things about cancer treatment and recovery is your mindset," she said. "Honestly, what the Soroptimist did for me in the darkest time of treatment was give me the support and the hope that things are going to be OK. It helped me channel my strong, warrior spirit. They gave me the positivity that I couldn't have had on my own."
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