In March 2013, Alana Kulesa was 38 years old and training for the Pittsburgh Marathon with the support of her husband Kevin and her children, son Niko and daughter Vivian, who were eight and three at the time. On March 11, she went for a routine visit with OB-GYN Preeti Divekar, M.D., and heard words she never expected to hear during her examination: “Alana, have we felt this before? I’d like you to get a mammogram immediately.” Upon reviewing the images from the mammogram, the radiologist identified three suspicious masses that were confirmed to be malignant after further testing.With no family history of breast cancer, Alana’s diagnosis was very much out of nowhere. She was referred to Gretchen Ahrendt, M.D., a surgical oncologist at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, with whom she felt an immediate connection. When Dr. Ahrendt recommended a mastectomy, Michael Gimbel, M.D., presented Alana with several options for reconstructive surgery.
When it came time for surgery on May 6, 2013, less than two months after her initial diagnosis, Alana underwent a tag-team surgery, which combined the mastectomy procedure and the reconstructive procedure into one operation. “I feel like I won the breast cancer lottery. The cancer was nonaggressive and had not spread. I didn’t need radiation or chemotherapy,” Alana said. “The entire timeline of my cancer journey was brief. My ordeal was difficult, but it is so much worse for other women,” she added.
Alana celebrated her one-year “cancerversary” by running the Erie Marathon, making up for missing her race the previous year due to her diagnosis and treatment. Even with this milestone accomplishment, she was still looking for the perfect opportunity to give back to other young families dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis.
In May 2015, Alana had a moment of clarity while running. She chose to honor her second cancerversary by establishing the Kulesa Family Camp Scholarship Fund at the Carnegie Science Center, where she works as the director of strategic education initiatives. The scholarship will allow several children whose mothers are battling breast cancer to attend a week of summer camp at the Science Center for no cost.
Alana’s motivation for establishing the scholarship was her own children. “From the moment I was diagnosed, my focus was on my kids and how this would impact them. I did not want 2013 to be the summer of cancer. My husband and I wanted to provide a sense of normalcy and happiness in what was otherwise a difficult time, and we did that by sending Niko to camp at the Science Center,” Alana explained.
The Science Center offers a wide variety of day camps for children between the ages of 4 and 14. Each one provides a hands-on learning experience that makes science accessible and understandable. By providing the opportunity for other children to experience these camps, Alana hopes to take their minds off of cancer and allow them to focus on learning and building friendships in a welcoming environment.
There are currently still Kulesa Family Camp Scholarships available for the summer of 2015, and there are still openings in several of the many camps available at the Science Center, including “Quantum Leap Science,” “Lights, Camera, Science!,” “Create-a-Bot,” and “River Camp.” If you or someone you know is interested in the available scholarship openings, please contact the Science Center at 412-237-1637. If you are interested in giving to the Kulesa Family Camp Scholarship Fund to expand this opportunity to even more children, please contact the Science Center’s development director at 412-237-1611 to inquire about making a gift.