If you’ve watched any volleyball lately, especially on the prep and college levels, you’ve noticed a lot of pink. That’s for breast-cancer awareness and fundraising. That includes in many cases helping a volleyball-based non-profit called The Side-Out Foundation, which is a cause close to the heart of pro beach star April Ross.
Even when she’s not playing in a pro beach tournament, April Ross stays really busy between travel, practice, off-court workouts, sponsorship obligations and spending time with friends and family.
But on at least four separate occasions this past year, Ross met and spent considerable time with high school and college teams immediately after her last AVP match of the day.
That’s because it’s all very personal to Ross.
When Ross was a teenager, her mom was diagnosed with, and eventually succumbed to, metastatic breast cancer. Each of the teams that have been rewarded with the special meetings have raised money for research on late-stage breast cancer through The Side-Out Foundation.
The Side-Out Foundation raises money for research on stage IV (metastatic) breast cancer by working with teams from coast-to-coast to host Dig Pink® events. Side-Out then takes the money generated and directly funds ground-breaking clinical trials of its own unique design.
Accordingly, Ross has always believed in the power of sports to make a difference in people’s lives.
“Since becoming successful in beach volleyball, making the finals in the AVP and going to the Olympics, my following started to build and it felt selfish to just promote myself only,” Ross said.
“I’m wired to give back and help people. The Side-Out Foundation approached me and it made sense, because it is a such an important cause in life with my mom having breast cancer. It made me feel like I was doing something with the platform I was given.”
The two-time Olympic beach medalist, a former star indoors for USC, recognizes that her success gives her a voice.
“The volleyball community is such a tight-knit one,” Ross said. “When teams are raising funds through The Side-Out Foundation, I want to acknowledge them and encourage them, and more teams, to continue their good work.
“I’d like to think I would’ve participated in Dig Pink if I had the opportunity to do so when I was younger. I’m so thankful for these girls that they have the awareness to know that they can do something within their communities to give back and doing it through a worthy cause like Side-Out and Dig Pink is like keeping it in the family. I’m impressed by the teams and when I hear about the efforts they put together for their Dig Pink events, it makes me even prouder to be a part of this foundation.
“Volleyball was always my time to block everything else out and focus on something that was something I could work on and get better at. It was a passion of mine and took me away from any problems I had. It still to a point does that. Growing up, it was an escape and going into college after my mother passed, it was always something that she wanted to see me doing. She supported me for all those years and it was a big motivating factor to me to push myself to be successful.”
Ross and The Side-Out executive director Rick Dunetz, a volleyball coach himself, share both a love for the sport and the emotions that come with losing a loved one to breast cancer.
Dunetz lost his mother to metastatic breast cancer in 2010 and was stunned to find out that stage IV breast-cancer research was, and remains, severely underfunded and only receives an estimated 2 to 5 percent of the $6 billion that goes towards breast-cancer research.
There is currently no cure for breast cancer. Women with advanced-stage breast cancer eventually progress out of each drug they take as their cancer cells adapt, become resistant and begin growing again. This transition is called the progression free survival rate and sadly, it decreases from each treatment to the next one. So once a drug “wears off,” the next one only helps for half as long until a patient has no time left to live.
Rather than give up, Dunetz and the Side-Out Foundation created their own unconventional, cutting-edge research protocol that focuses solely on the most advanced stage that every year is responsible for taking the lives of more than 40,000 friends, family and loved ones, as it did Margie Ross and Gloria Dunetz.
“My mom is one of my biggest inspirations for sure. I saw what she went through. The older I get, the more clarity I have with my experience growing up with my mom having breast cancer,” Ross said. “The more time that goes by the more I realize how strong she was and courageous she was to fight the disease to make my sister and I feel like we had a normal childhood and family, but it was relentless.
“We thought that several times she went into remission and she was cured of it. Then to have that relief and it come back stronger was devastating. It was tough, but at the same time my mom made it as easy on me and my sister as possible and that is where I find inspiration.
“Any challenges I’m confronted with—whether it’s volleyball or in life—a lot of it pales in comparison. I can be brave and I won’t give up on or off the court.”
That spirit of fighting back against all odds is important to the relationship between Ross and Side-Out.
Side-Out doesn’t buy into the conventional wisdom that the game is already over once stage IV is diagnosed and is trying to find ways that will make breast cancer a manageable disease.
Two already-completed clinical trials have produced significantly positive results in extending the progression-free survival rate. The charity’s approach to designing a new game plan reinforced to Ross that Side-Out was a worthy partner for her.
As Dunetz pointed out, “April has faced a lot of match points in her life and fought back to win. That’s the same thing we are doing through our research. Her willingness to meet with some of our teams means the world to us. It also tangibly shows the players how important it is to give back and to keep fighting. When she tells the teams about how much the cause means to her and about how inspired she was by her own mother’s battle it gives these players a moment they won’t forget.”
Ross is equally inspired by the players.
“I mean I am blown away by how many high school students participate in The Side-Out Foundation and have Dig Pink games. I know the cause is so worthwhile and I’m so glad that they do too. They put so much effort into it. So the fact that they want to come out and meet me and that can be my part in helping, that means a lot and I’m stoked to be a part of it. The fact that it’s solely funded by volleyball is awesome.”
Last year 765 high school, college or club teams participated in the Dig Pink® fundraisers. A total of $1,138,337 was donated in 2016 through Side-Out, an amount that is more than the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB put into breast-cancer causes in the same time period. Supporting teams have raised over $12 million for research since the inception of the charity.
Now, The Side-Out Foundation is already entering Phase Three of its own clinical research.
Ross is so committed to the cause that she personally toured one of Side-Out’s research facilities so she could learn more about the current state of science on the trials.
“I’ve never before been able to see it in such detail and really get an understanding of how profound and impactful the research can be,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of new technology out there. I’ve tried to keep up on it for my own sake. But going to the research facility, I learned so much about how a study like that can help with later stage breast cancer. The information is out there. The science is out there to help and The Side-Out Foundation is right in the middle of it all.
“Seeing everything in person is motivating to me to get more involved and believe in their mission even more.”
About The Side-Out Foundation
The Side-Out Foundation is a non-profit organization based in Fairfax, VA that harnesses the power of volleyball players hosting Dig Pink® volleyball tournaments to raise money for critical research of late stage metastatic breast cancer – the least funded form of breast cancer scientific studies. Volleyball coaches across the country use the events as a team building experience that also reinforces the role sports can and should play in supporting athletes’ communities off the court.
Most matches take place in the fall in conjunction with October’s designation as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For details visit https://side-out.org/
Click here to see an interview Ross conducted to further spread the word on how the volleyball community is uniting on this campaign.