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Stolen bus brings awareness to nonprofit cancer care organization

Rina Bello
The interior of BACC’s mobile care bus after it was found by San Mateo Police. Damages include a broken emergency hatch, broken ignition, stolen wigs, prosthetics, comfort supplies, and the catalytic converter.

A mobile care bus belonging to the nonprofit Bay Area Cancer Connections (BACC) was stolen and ransacked of wigs, prosthetics, and other specialized products designed to help cancer patients through treatment.

BACC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women and men with breast and ovarian cancer. They provide free resources to their clients, including emotional support, therapy, health and wellness classes, and financial support. They also offer wigs, prosthetics, headscarves, hats, specialized bras and shirts, and comfort supplies, all free of charge. 

“There’s more to cancer than just the medical treatment. There’s a whole other side of it,” said Rina Bello, the executive director of BACC. “It’s about emotional healing, the practical needs of people.”

BACC helps guide people through their cancer journey by providing services that allow clients to talk to someone diagnosed with the same cancer or a staff member who can help provide and break down medical information to help them make decisions. BACC does not give medical advice but provides reliable sources and human support.

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“When you get diagnosed with cancer, it changes your life in a minute. Not always for the worst, but it certainly impacts your day-to-day living,” said Cheri Goudy, a nurse navigator for cancer patients at St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco. “You’re now a patient who has a diagnosis of cancer, which is a life-threatening, life-altering event. And it affects everything.” 

BACC’s mobile cancer care bus, nicknamed Tiffany due to its signature blue color, helps them service all their clients equally. (Rina Bello)

Bello initially started the mobile care bus as a project to help their clients during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The project has branched out further, and BACC utilizes the bus to service clients who cannot drive to the office in San Mateo. It is stocked with the same supplies as its home office to provide all clients with the same care. The staff on the bus also offer counsel and human support to the clients they visit. 

“It’s scary. People are afraid that their cancer is not treatable or their cancer won’t be successfully removed, so there are all kinds of fears that go through their minds,” Bello said. “I think the greatest gift we give is that we make it manageable and we make it hopeful, and people leave feeling empowered, feeling a sense of control at a time when they have very limited control.”

When Bello and her team realized their bus was missing, they notified San Mateo police, who found the bus abandoned by Serra High School. Bello and her team had thought since they labeled the bus as the property of a nonprofit cancer organization, they wouldn’t be affected by the recent crime in San Mateo, so it was very shocking to see their beloved bus in that state. 

The perpetrators entered through the emergency hatch at the top, broke the ignition, and stole bras, wigs, prosthetics, comfort tote bags made by volunteers, and specialized shirts to help with cancer treatments. They then ransacked the bus, breaking the windows, the doors, and the interior and destroying as much as they could, with a final touch of stealing the catalytic converter, according to Bello.

“I think we had such an emotional reaction because of the thought of all the people waiting for us. We have scheduled appointments and people relying on us to come out, and it took that away,” Bello said. “And not only that, they took everything people get from us. These things are free, and often, many of the clients we’re serving through the Mobile Resource Center are low-income and can’t afford these things. And it just doesn’t make any sense. Why would you take that from someone going through a really difficult time?”

All the people waiting for us, we have scheduled appointments and people relying on us to come out, and it took that away. And they took everything people get from us.

— Rina Bello

BACC provides comfort supplies and specialized clothing to help ease treatment processes and help cancer patients emotionally. Their distribution of wigs and breast prosthetics allows their clients to feel a sense of normalcy and physically present themselves as someone not affected by cancer. With the help of their bus to deliver support to the clients, BACC makes sure everyone that wants to can select a replacement for what they lost.

“I think it’s very important for people to feel normal. And when you have a cancer diagnosis like this and part of your breast or your entire breast has been removed with a mastectomy, feeling normal again means feeling like you have a breast there,” Goudy said. “Feeling not like a woman anymore because you’ve lost your hair and become bald. People always tell me that it’s the one thing besides the diagnosis that makes them cry. They’ll put up with the symptoms of the chemo and the side effects, but hair loss is traumatic for them. So having a wig is super important for people to feel like they’re still part of society and their parts of themselves or their identity haven’t changed.”

Since the incident, BACC has received community support and donations from other states. Bello has found a silver lining in the increased awareness, which she hopes will help more cancer patients find them and receive the emotional or financial care they need. 

While the increased community support will help with the monetary damages to the bus and the loss of supplies, Bello and Jenni Harris, the director of donor engagement at BACC, are worried about its emotional impact on customers who depend on the bus. 

“It’s going to make it a longer wait period for them, and our concern is what happens to them during this time,” Bello said. “It just makes it harder to help and get them the resources that they need. And we’re hoping she’ll be up and running soon, but it’s definitely impacting how we can serve the community.”

Bello and Harris pride themselves on being a part of an organization built on compassion and kindness. They are very grateful to be surrounded by a community that cares for their organization. This incident has only pushed them to further their outreach, the resources, and information they can provide, and help their clients in every way possible.

“It’s not going to stop us. It’s added work. It’s been emotionally difficult,” Harris said. “But everyone here is so driven by what we do, and we will make sure that our clients get what they need and what they deserve.”

This story was originally published on Scot Scoop News on March 12, 2023.