Valeda Keys sits behind a neatly organized desk in the small Brentwood office of her nonprofit organization, Valeda’s Hope. In sharp contrast to the building’s neutral hallways, the walls of her office are painted in bright hues of pink and purple that are reflective of the bold, feminine energy she exudes
Ruminating on the long, hard journey that brought her here, she says, “You don’t take things one day at a time – you take them one second at a time.”
This is the outlook that helped her survive two diagnoses of breast cancer and seven surgeries — including a double mastectomy — over a three-year period. Strength and hope are essential for anyone fighting cancer and Keys has an abundance of both, which she now uses to help other St. Louis women.
Through Valeda’s Hope, Keys provides comfortable recliners in which women who have had double mastectomies can recover — an option that takes delicate skin, medical aids and motor pain into account. Keys and her nonprofit team also educate the larger community about breast cancer, particularly high-risk Black women. As a longtime licensed practical nurse, Keys is familiar with how doctors and nurses use their skills to treat patients. But as a former patient, she knows that plain information about post-surgery care is lacking.
“Right here in St. Louis, black women are dying at a rate where we’re number two in the United States,” says Keys. “We’re dying because there’s a lack of knowledge, there’s a lack of resources and there is fear.”
Since founding Valeda’s Hope in 2013, Keys has gone from providing about seven recliners per year to now donating two to four per month. She and her husband, Larry, personally purchase and store the recliners in their garage in St. Ann, waiting patiently for big sales to snap up the best deals on the chairs.
Along with recliners, Keys also delivers care items such as soft button-down pajamas that don’t require patients to lift their arms over their heads, comfy slippers and even adult coloring books. She helps the women get settled as well, using her nursing skills to empty their drains of fluid and show them how to do it for themselves.
Gretchen Smith knows firsthand how comfort and empathy can be life changing, after receiving a recliner and soft items from Keys during her own post-surgery recovery.
“When I came home after having a bilateral mastectomy, she and her husband showed up like two hours later. She was on her way out of town. She dropped what she was doing and they showed up at our door,” Smith recalls.
“I didn’t know I wasn’t going to be able to lift up. She told me, ‘You’re going to lose upper body strength, you’re going to do this and that.’ She had given me all that information,” Smith continues. “You can read about it in a book, but to hear that from another survivor, that was amazing.”
Keys’ mission to help other women is based in her own long journey with breast cancer. Her mother was diagnosed at age 36, and as Keys was just 14 at the time, the gravity of the situation didn’t quite sink in. But when her mom was diagnosed a second time at age 56, it became much more real. During that time, Keys says she had a vivid dream that she would one day face the same challenge.
Her dream came to pass in 2010, when she received her first breast cancer diagnosis at age 37. Having cared for her mom during treatment and with the knowledge she’d accumulated as a licensed practical nurse, she had a better sense of what lay ahead than many women do.
“The memory basically was, if my mom can get through this, I can get through this,” Keys says. “My mom was and still is my first hero.”
After a lumpectomy and pre-surgery genetic testing, Keys learned that she carried the BRCA2 gene, commonly known as the “breast cancer gene,” for which her twin sister would also later test positive. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, approximately 45 percent of women with a BRCA2 mutation will develop breast cancer by age 70, and women with a BRCA2 mutation who overcome their breast cancer with treatment have a higher-than-average chance of developing a second cancer or a recurrence.
This was the case for Keys, as she received her second diagnosis in her other breast in 2011. With her risk high for another recurrence, a double mastectomy offered her best chance for survival.
During the long and painful recovery, Keys realized something no doctor had told her – she couldn’t comfortably rest in her own bed or even the sofa. With drains where her breasts had been and limited mobility in her arms, it was challenging to lie down flat or get in and out of a bed.
She found the solution in an unlikely place — her husband’s recliner.
“The recliner was like heaven because it’s kind of like you’re still in the hospital bed, but even more comfortable,” she says. After several more surgeries recovering in the recliner, the inspiration for Valeda’s Hope struck.
“I don’t know how I’m going to do this, I don’t know where the funding is going to come from, but I want to give recliners to women who undergo a double mastectomy,” Keys remembers thinking.
While Valeda’s Hope began as a passion project that day, it took hard work, a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a bit of help to take the organization to the next level. After seeing a Facebook ad for the Grace Hill Women’s Business Center, Keys took the initiative and enrolled in their program.
At Grace Hill, she learned critical business skills like how to protect her intellectual property, manage her budget and run her organization like a business, even though it is non-profit. It’s something that has changed her approach and has given her a new goal to find local furniture store partners to regularly donate recliners or storage space.
“It’s all about revising and refocusing now,” she says.
With her new skills and determination, Keys recently submitted a grant to Susan G. Komen and is working to increase individual donations as well as corporate sponsorships, including support for her annual Pink and Pearls fundraising luncheon, where women battling breast cancer get to hear research updates from top local physicians. Funds also support mobile mammography events and education programs throughout St. Louis.
“Valeda provided me so much information,” says Smith, who became a board member for Valeda’s Hope after her own experience. “I needed someone who knew first hand that could just help calm me down. I still have the notes that she gave me. I just felt like I was on fire and somebody needed to put the fire out inside of me, and talking to her did that. It made me want to give back to her whatever I can so she can continue her mission.”
To share her wisdom and experience with even more women, Keys recently published a book, appropriately titled My Strength is Your Strength. She calls it a kind of “guidebook bible” for dealing with breast cancer for both her own family, but also for newly diagnosed women everywhere.
Keys’ best advice? “It’s not the end of the world and you will get through it. Ask for support, ask for help and accept support, accept help.”