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Bemidji resident advocates with Lance Armstrong Foundation in Washington, D.C.

On Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., last week, Michelle Bennett of Bemidji joined 99 other people from across the nation to advocate for cancer survivors and their loved ones for the Lance Armstrong Foundation's 2006 Livestrong Day.

The LAF selected Bennett as one of 100 advocates - two from each state - to participate in Livestrong Day, a grassroots advocacy initiative to unify people affected by cancer and raise awareness about cancer survivorship issues, according to a foundation news release.

"There is hardly anyone today that doesn't have a relative or friend that has had some type of cancer," noted Bennett, a cancer survivor and breast cancer nurse case manager at MeritCare Bemidji.

Bennett, who overcame the early stages of skin cancer 18 years ago, has seen many family members battle with cancer, as well. Her brother had skin cancer, her grandmother had colon cancer and her sister-in-law died five years ago from lung cancer.

And then in January, Bennett's step-brother was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. She visited the 38-year-old in the hospital when he went in for his brain biopsy. When Bennett returned to work after the visit, she found a LAF pamphlet on her desk with a note stating that the foundation offers a lot of good information on cancer issues.

Bennett visited LAF's Web site, where she learned about Livestrong Day. She said she applied to be one of the advocates and then forgot about it.

In mid-April, the foundation contacted Bennett. She was selected as one of two people from Minnesota to participate in 2006 Livestrong Day - all expenses paid. More than 1,000 people across the nation applied for the 100 spots.

Lobbying legislators

On May 16, the day after she arrived in Washington, D.C., Bennett and the other advocates met for a 10-hour training session on how to become effective lobbyists. In the evening, the advocates gathered for a reception with Armstrong. All members of Congress were invited to attend the reception.

On Capitol Hill the next day, Bennett met with aides to Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.; Sen. Mark Dayton, DFL-Minn.; and Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District. That day, she and the other advocates focused on three requests: that more than $5 billion be restored to the National Cancer Institute, that $427 million be allocated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that legislators would co-sponsor a cancer survivorship bill.

"We started at 6:30 a.m. and we didn't get done until six that night," Bennett said.

That same day, Armstrong gave a speech in Upper Senate Park on Capitol Hill with all 100 advocates standing behind him wearing bright yellow Livestrong T-shirts.

"He's just a great speaker," Bennett said.

While in Washington, D.C., she noted, it was interesting to talk with the other advocates to learn why they applied to participate in Livestrong Day. She added that her Livestrong Day experience opened her eyes to really understand that everyone who has been touched by cancer goes through the same issues, but deals with them in their own unique ways.

Serving local patients

Bennett worked as a nurse for 18 years at North Country Regional Hospital before she took the breast cancer nurse case manager position in November.

She said MeritCare Bemidji sees about 80-90 breast cancer patients each year. MeritCare, she said, hopes to expand the case manager program to other cancers that most affect patients at the Bemidji clinic.

As a breast cancer nurse case manager, she offers women with breast cancer help from the day they are diagnosed to the end of their treatment. She said she provides these women with education the day they meet with the surgeon and then calls them a few days later. She also helps them prepare for surgery and visits them in the hospital afterward.

"And I call them when they get home," Bennett added.

She said she also helps patients find transportation to their appointments and search for financial assistance.

"There's a lot of financial resources out there," she noted.

Since starting her new job in November, Bennett said she has meet 33 amazing women.

"They're all amazing women because they're so strong," she added.