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'30' doesn't mark end of story for Riverview women battling cancer

RIVERVIEW — The number was 30.

Her birthday? July 30. The amount of years Melanie Salava had been married to her husband? 30.

The amount of days her brother lived after being diagnosed with cancer? 30.

The amount of years that her oncology office, Florida Cancer Specialists had spent serving the community?

30.

After receiving her Stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis, Salava had what she describes as an outer body experience, but she quickly shed a positive attitude on a grim diagnosis.

"It hits you like a Mack truck, that diagnosis," Salava said. "But I was very lucky, because if someone was going to have cancer, I was the one. I had a loving spouse, I had a wonderful family, a very supportive church, wonderful insurance and everything to help me concentrate on getting well."

During her many sessions of chemotherapy at Florida Cancer Specialists' Brandon location, the Riverview resident would talk with other patients, some of whom were struggling not only with their diagnosis, but also with the high costs of treatment.

Compounded with everyday expenses, the price of cancer treatment, doctor visits and medication all meant many of her fellow cancer survivors were drowning in their bills.

"They would tell me stories, and I would just be floored," said Salava. "I would hear some people tell me they'd have to decide between their medicine and food for their children and just thought no one should have to make that choice."

With the number 30 fresh on her mind and surrounding her in everyday life, Salava researched ways to help the people in need and came back to Florida Cancer Specialists, but this time, working with their nonprofit organization, the Florida Cancer Specialists Foundation.

"The foundation provides nonmedical financial assistance to cancer patients in Florida like rent, mortgage, gas, water, electricity, or maybe an auto payment," said Florida Cancer Specialists Foundation development and event manager, Terri Gagliardi. "Patients have to be 200 percent below the national poverty level."

The organization is on track to help 700 patients this year and since its inception in 2012 has raised $1,750,000 for Florida cancer patients.

In the spirit of doing something out of her comfort zone, Salava decided to raise money for the foundation by walking 13 laps for a total of 30 miles around the Westfield Brandon Mall on March 30 of this year.

"I was just hoping she wasn't going to get hurt while she was doing it," said Salava's husband, Gary. "I ended up staying back handing out pamphlets, letting people know what she was doing and why she was doing it and getting her water or anything else she needed."

Salava raised more $3,000 with that walk.

Because of her contribution, Salava is on the committee for, and will be the guest of honor, at this year's annual gala on Saturday: 50 Shades of Pink.

"She's been so helpful to have on the committee," Gagliardi said. "She has contacted so many local businesses and they've given us gift baskets and gift cards. It's amazing how much has come in."

After the gala, Salava is eager to do more, for as long as she's able. And she says she's happy to have found an organization that gives back completely to people who truly need it.

Her husband isn't surprised.

"She's just driven to help people and give back to those who haven't been as fortunate."

Contact Kelsey Sunderland at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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