“I clearly remember feeling the Charlie Brown ‘blah blah blah’ as the breast surgeon told me I had cancer,” Nancy says. “As I came out of the fog, I remember asking my surgeon where I could find support and education. She said, ‘Support groups do not help people; they scare them.’ She also did not think I should read Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book. Needless to say I ran to the bookstore to get Dr. Love’s book and I found SHARE for a support group.”
Nancy’s proactive decision to seek support was transformative, she says, because speaking with other women who had been through a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment gave her the most precious gift: hope. “I was scared to death,” she says, “because I had to make so many major decisions about breast reconstruction, hormonal treatments, possible chemotherapy, and everything else. My knowledge of breast cancer was only that it happened to other women, not me.” But communicating her fears, and realizing that other women had similar worries and stories to share, was empowering. “I know that this sounds hokey,” Nancy says, “but when I sat in that room, for the first time I felt like I was going to live and that I was not alone. Sitting in a room full of women who were dealing with the same issues, who were also scared to death, gave me strength.” Likewise, Nancy says, her communication with a peer match counselor—a volunteer from the SHARE hotline who also had DCIS—was inspiring: “She shared her story with me, and it gave me hope.”
Nancy came back to SHARE, which offers peer support through hotlines, support groups, and educational seminars (all peer led), repeatedly as she progressed through treatment and decisions about reconstruction. “Before deciding on a breast reconstruction, I attended a reconstruction workshop at SHARE,” she says. “Again it was peer led. For some strange reason, it was easier to believe other survivors than the doctors, the nurses, and my family. By the end of the meeting, the women who had already had surgery were sharing their results with those of us who still were in the decision-making stage.” The sense of shared experience and support ultimately directed not only Nancy’s treatment and reconstruction ideas but also her career path, and it realigned her priorities.
Determined to give back by becoming a SHARE mentor herself before she was even a year out from her own diagnosis, Nancy knew that she wanted to help other women as she had been supported. “I asked to be trained on the hotline six months after my surgery,” Nancy says. “I was told I had to be a year out before I could be trained. I continued to attend support groups and learned everything I could about breast cancer. After eight months I asked (or pleaded) again to be trained to be on the hotline. I had a burning desire to help other women. I knew that what they had given to me, I could give back to others.”
Nancy soon realized that helping other women manage their cancer diagnosis and the upheaval that follows was her passion. “For me, helping others deal with breast cancer was a calling. I was 45 years old and finally knew what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Nancy says of the realization that she wanted to make a career and a life of supporting other survivors.?Nancy now works for Women at Risk as a patient navigator at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York and is grateful to be working in support of women in the breast cancer community—an opportunity, she says, which she owes to her SHARE training. “I will always be grateful for SHARE and the women I have met on my journey.” Nancy still volunteers for SHARE, working from home to staff the hotline on at least one day most weekends. “It is amazing to be able to hear the fear in someone’s voice and to be able to help,” she says. “Sometime it is information that you give them. Sometime you just listen.”
Nancy is also repeatedly reminded of the power of survivor support as she continues her own breast cancer journey. “A month ago I had a TRAM flap (reconstructive) surgery, and I had a special visitor. The woman who came in the door was the person I had my first hotline call with. She had a mastectomy a year and a half ago and I visited her, and now she was there to see me; this is how it works—full circle, woman to woman and survivor to survivor.”
SHARE (Self-help for Women with Breast or Ovarian Cancer) is a not-for-profit survivor-led organization for women with breast or ovarian cancer, providing support, resources, and information. SHARE offers three national hotlines staffed by trained volunteers who are survivors: a breast cancer hotline, an ovarian cancer hotline, and a Latina hotline (in Spanish). SHARE has survivor-led support groups and cutting-edge educational programs in many New York City locations. Programs are held in English and in Spanish and are free of charge. The national toll-free number for all hotlines is 866-891-2392. The toll-free number for the New York State Ovarian Hotline is 866-53-SHARE [866-537-4273]. Visit www.sharecancersupport.orgfor more information.