Breast cancer survivors turned social entrepreneurs create an educational conference to save lives

Breast Cancer Awareness Association (BCAA) Co-founders Ann Harris, left, and Lois Joseph celebrate at the Living With Breast Cancer Conference.

Breast cancer survivors Lois Joseph and Ann Harris really do practice what they preach.

They met by chance over a decade ago, and today they’re working to empower breast cancer patients by providing information they can use to make informed decisions concerning their breast health.

Joseph and Harris formed the Breast Cancer Awareness Association (BCAA) in 2001 as a venue for breast cancer patients and their families to utilize to educate themselves throughout the journey of dealing with breast cancer.

It’s an extremely personal mission for both founders. Joseph lost her husband to cancer and shortly after, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “The process that I went through with my husband was very challenging in the sense that we knew so little, did not know the right questions to ask, we did not have an advocate to guide us, and not knowing where to go for all this information we were really scared and sort of paralyzed,” said Joseph.

She made up her mind shortly after her diagnosis that it was going to be a very different journey for her and decided to create an educational gathering to make sure others have much more access to information about breast health.

Harris, who met Joseph while serving as her nurse, decided something needed to be done to share information when she was going through chemotherapy, and felt she didn’t have access to information she needed in order to make decisions about her health.

Both partners are successful in their own right and have put their resources and passion toward helping others in the fight against breast cancer. Joseph has worked in fashion retail for the last 12 years. She also started a successful catering company with her late husband. Harris is an established RN who works at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, where she’s been for over 30 years. Working hand-in-hand for over 11 years has created an incredible bond between the two women that have the same vision about empowerment through education.

While the partners are gearing up for their 11th annual Breast Cancer Awareness and Education Conference on Oct. 6, they admit that it’s been a challenge to secure sponsorships and attract the right participants to the conference. As social entrepreneurs, it’s sometimes tough to compete against the big dogs.

“The uniqueness about the BCAA is that we are one of a few that present this type of conference,” said Joseph. “This sets us apart from others, as we raise no money for research, but strictly educational.”

The economic downturn hasn’t made it any easier to attract funds, but the partners are fueled by the lives that they touch through their educational efforts.

The people that come to the conference every year and tell the founders how inspired they are when they leave is what most fuels the fire and keeps the conference going  every year.  The atmosphere during the day of the conference is filled with positive energy and hope and is created by volunteers that give of their time effortlessly.

“I love the one-on-one support that I can give by talking to a person on the phone, in person or by visiting them in the hospital,” said Harris. “We are so fortunate to live in the community that we do with excellent health care and world renowned doctors to choose from when setting up the conference.”

Indeed, this year’s conference will feature high-profile physicians speaking on a variety of subjects from the latest in oncology research to how exercise will help going through treatment for breast cancer.

The 11th Annual Breast Cancer Awareness Education Conference will take place Saturday, Oct. 6, at the Saint Paul RiverCentre from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Visit the organization’s Web site at for more information.