Woman with breast cancer "humbled" by crowdfunding effort to pay for her medical bills

(CBS News) Web sites like Kickstarter are becoming a popular way to raise money, for everything from indie films to garage bands.

But what about crowdfunding for health care?

CBS News recently met one woman, Amelia Coffaro, who is counting on it.

The 28-year-old is in the fight of her life. She was diagnosed in February with an aggressive form of inflammatory breast cancer. She started chemotherapy on Valentine's Day and underwent a double mastectomy less than six weeks later.

Dr. Alysandra Lal, a surgical oncologist for Columbia St. Mary's Hospital in Milwaukee, Wis., is her surgeon. Lal said, "She is handling this phenomenally well. But you have to understand, to be 28 and given this diagnosis hits you out of left field. This is very hard even to accept the diagnosis, let alone face this very difficult treatment."

As a freelance photographer living in New York City, Coffaro had no health insurance to ward off what quickly became a mountain of medical bills. So a group of her friends got together and did something very loving, very modern, and, it turned out, very effective.

It's called crowdfunding -- a booming niche of the U.S. economy that has raised start-up money for small businesses, inventions, independent films, scholarships and much more.

In this case, for Project Amelia.

Almost $50,000 has been raised. It's money that almost matches what she owes. It was raised through a website called GiveForward.com.

"We believe that people want to help people," said Ethan Austin, president and co-founder of GiveForward.com. "And it's obviously the case in Amelia's case that there's just so many people out there who are rooting for her."

GiveForward.com started in 2008 as a fundraising tool for all sorts of things but quickly narrowed its focus to medical expenses. And why not?

The National Bureau of Economic Research found that half of American adults say they would not be able to easily come up with just $2,000 in case of a medical emergency.

"We realized what a huge problem it really was in this country and we shifted our focus to focus only on medical," Austin said. "We had about 300 fundraisers in the first year and last year -- in the last six months -- we've had about 15,000."

Like similar sites, Give Forward makes money from small fees connected to the donations.

"This travels so much faster than it ever could before because of Facebook, because of Twitter, because of social media," Austin said.

And it's not just friends and family donating, but long-lost acquaintances, and even total strangers.

"I think I was humbled by how many people reached out to me, who didn't even know me," Coffaro said. "There are no words to describe that feeling."

Coffaro is getting treatment in Milwaukee now so she can be close to her immediate family. And she was able to get Medicaid to help cover upcoming expenses.

Lal said, so far, Coffaro has had one surgery, but she will require additional ones.

Her doctors say reducing the financial burden has affected her recovery.

Lal said, "it shows a huge well of support for her. People she knows. People she doesn't know, who are all there supporting her -- not just emotionally, but also financially."

Asked what this effort says about the human spirit, Coffaro replied, "It's totally indestructible. It's totally here in full force. It gives me hope."

Watch Dean Reynolds' full report above.

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