In an earlier SharePost, I talked about visiting women in the hospital who’ve had breast reconstruction surgery, and the immediate bond we feel for one another. We play the breast cancer version of show and tell: I’ll show you my reconstruction, you show me yours. Before cancer, I would never in a million years have considered lifting my shirt and baring my chest to a perfect stranger. But cancer changes everything; it gave me a burning passion to be there for other women facing it. And if it helps a woman two days out of surgery to see how her healed breast might finally look, then I’m there.
I didn’t walk into the hospital one day, go up to the surgery floor, and ask if there were any breast cancer patients hanging around waiting for a visitor. First of all, they probably would have (nicely) tossed me out. And second, I’m not that foolish, to think that a woman groggy from drugs and still trying to make sense of the fact that she has cancer would welcome an unknown stranger to her bedside. No, my visits began as the result of BeFriend, a wonderful program at our cancer center run by two social workers specializing in breast cancer. BeFriend matches newly diagnosed women with women who had a similar diagnosis and life situation (married/single, children/no children, age, work status).
The woman who’s completed treatment acts as a sounding board, a shoulder to lean on, and the voice of experience for the woman just beginning. Often multiple women will connect with the woman in treatment. This happens initially by phone or email, but often women end up meeting and spending time together, particularly in the infusion suite or radiation waiting room.
It’s a great program; I’ve connected with lots of women, some of whom have become friends, others with whom I formed intense, short-term bonds, before we both moved on. I’d often get in touch with a woman just as her treatment was starting, answering questions as she made the tough decisions about surgery and reconstruction; then we’d talk afterwards, when she was home from the hospital and looking at radiation or chemo. At some point I thought, let me visit these women in the hospital, when they’re at their lowest and need something to look forward to, something I could easily give them: a vision of where they might be a few years out, healthy, happy, and looking just fine.
So next time I was matched with someone, I asked if I could visit her in the hospital after surgery. She said yes, she’d like that very much. And partially because of my experience with these post-surgery women, our cancer center is now setting up what they call the Patient Ambassador program, where women past their surgery visit women in the midst of recovery. As we all know, while family support is vital, connecting with someone who’s been there is another kind of comfort: I got through it, and you will, too.
Are you interested in making a positive difference in another woman’s cancer journey? Contact social services at your hospital or cancer center, and see if they have a patient-matching program. If they do, join it today. If they don’t, ask them to consider starting one. Linking a woman who wants to help with a woman who needs a boost gives them both extra energy for the journey ahead.