By Elizabeth Marie Himchak
The American Cancer Society has recently honored Rancho Bernardan Alice Vestergaard by presenting her its Spirit Award.
It is given to an individual or group deemed exceptional in their personal commitment to the organization’s cause and mission.
“They exemplify the best of our volunteers and community partners, those who rose above and beyond the day-to-day volunteering that serves others and advances the fight against cancer,” said John Brannelly, ACS California Division’s corporate relations marketing director.
“Alice’s enthusiasm and dedication is engaging and infectious,” Brannelly said. “Our hope is that it inspires others to help the American Cancer Society and other important health and human service organizations.”
Vestergaard, Ashford University’s business development director, said she was “shocked” and called it “one of the most coveted awards in my lifetime.”
Not long after moving to Rancho Bernardo three years ago, Vestergaard said she became involved with ACS’ Cancer Action Network due to her work on the San Diego North Chamber of Commerce’s health committee. The network’s volunteers work on advocacy issues in a non-partisan fashion. This year she was the local network’s chairwoman and for the first time in five years the group exceeded its goal.
“I am very passionate about volunteering because almost everybody knows a person who has been impacted by cancer,” she said.
That includes Vestergaard, a 12-year melanoma survivor. While her formal volunteer work with ACS began a few years ago in Sacramento, she has been involved with various aspects since her teen years when she became involved in anti-smoking initiatives.
“I had two parents that smoked … and I was very much anti-smoking,” Vestergaard said, recalling unsuccessful efforts to get her parents to give up the habit.
“I was vicious, stealing my mother’s cigarettes and writing ‘cancer stick’ and ‘grave marker’ on them,” she said. “I annoyed them by nagging them.”
Vestergaard said she was aggressive because an uncle died of lung cancer when she was in high school. Her parents finally quit — though she said not because of her nagging — and both died of lung cancer complications.
In college, her health teacher curriculum included ACS materials. She later taught the course for 25 years. Her direct involvement with ACS in Sacramento included its Making Strides for Breast Cancer walk.
Vestergaard credited cancer educational materials for her early skin cancer diagnosis made after she called to her doctor’s attention a flat, freckle-like mole on her shoulder that had grown in size.
“Mine did not look like the pictures,” she said. “It was not big and ugly, but had an irregular border.” That was one of the ABCs she said, which stand for asymmetry, border and color. A mole that changes in one or more of these should be checked, she explained.
While Vestergaard did not seem the type prone to melanoma due to her Mediterranean-complexion, she said bad sunburns received while a lifeguard as a teenager likely contributed to her developing skin cancer years later. “This is the typical reason we advocate wearing sunscreen,” she added.
Without the cancer society’s educational efforts, Vestergaard said she would have likely “brushed it off and would not have paid attention.
“I was so lucky that my diagnosis came in the very earliest of the stages,” she said. “Others do not and (the cancer) gets into the lower levels of the skin and could (become) terminal.”
While new leaders will head ACS CAN efforts next year, Vestergaard said she would continue volunteering in other ways, such as fundraiser walks and golf tournaments.
“I’ve come to know how dedicated (the volunteers) are,” she said, calling them her ACS family. “They’re a fun group … incredible people and very dedicated from all walks of life and different ages.”