October activities raise cancer awareness, SOS offers one-on-one support

By Laura Hutton, News Co-Editor
“Breast cancer is the most lethal form of cancer for women in the world. An estimated 1 million cases will be identified this year, and about 500,000 new and existing patients will die from the disease. In the U.S., breast cancer will be diagnosed in 1 in 8 women,” (Time magazine, October 15, 2007).
Throughout October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, McDaniel students stood out as they raised money for the cure. Students picked up pink wear at the book store, helped the volleyball team with their “Digging for the Cure” fundraiser, and attended the Phi Mu “Pink Ribbon Clubroom.” Monetary support for the cure is vital, but it is also important to realize the value and significance of support needed for patients currently coping with breast cancer.
When Denise O’Neill, founder of the support group Survivors Offering Support, was diagnosed with breast cancer in April of 2003, she received treatment at Anne Arundel Medical Center (AAMC) and did not have time to attend a support group. With three children under 10, she was constantly busy. Her daily routine consisted of getting her children off to school, receiving a radiation treatment, going to work, and then taking her children to their various sports and extracurricular activities.
While attending radiation treatment, O’Neill confided in two friends who had been diagnosed, and they helped her through treatment. She discovered that her interactions with her friends really helped her through this rough time. She talked to other breast cancer patients and was shocked to discover that they had no idea what to expect during treatment.
O’Neill wanted the breast cancer patients to have a survivor with whom they could relate. She hoped for these women to have the same kind of support her friends had given her during treatment. O’Neill knew that she was lucky to have the support she did. During treatment, she did in-depth research and took copious notes. She went back to her doctor at AAMC and expressed her interest in creating a one-on-one breast cancer support group. Inspired by her two-friend support system, “two really helpful teammates,” O’Neill started the Survivors Offering Support (SOS) group in 2004.
SOS is a one-on-one mentoring group where trained survivors are paired with breast cancer patients who are similar in age and are undergoing the same types of treatment.
“Everyone should have a friend during breast cancer,” explained O’Neill.
To become mentors, women must have completed and been out of treatment for a year in order to allow time for mental healing. A four-hour training session and attendance at two lectures a year on new topics and research relating to breast cancer are required for all mentors.
Debra Reedy, diagnosed in February 2006 and a former SOS mentee, will train to become a mentor in the next few months. She recalled her mentor was “available anytime I had questions.” Reedy also appreciated having someone who had been through the same experience and hopes to provide this to her future mentee. She considers mentors to be important because they prove that “there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Mentors first make contact with their mentees through a phone call. They then decide together when, where, and how often to meet. Some meet and talk over coffee, and others bring their mentors to radiation treatments. O’Neill explained that the weeks after diagnosis are a very overwhelming period, making it important for the mentor and mentee to meet at least once during that first month after diagnosis.
However, not all breast cancer patients join the group as soon as they are diagnosed. Only about 50 percent of the SOS members actually join around the time of their diagnosis. Other women who join SOS are those who have been battling cancer for a while and realize that they need to talk to someone who has been through it.
The rest of the women that join SOS are those who have what O’Neill refers to as “new found wellness.” These are women who are at the end of their treatment but had repressed their emotions. They now have to come to terms with what they had gone through.
“I had cancer. How do I get on with my life now?” asked O’Neill.
There is a workshop designed to guide these women called, “Transition into Wellness.”
To inform women about SOS, fliers are posted at hospitals and mailers are sent out twice a year to OBGYN offices and breast surgeons so they can inform their patients. Reedy was diagnosed at Frederick Memorial Hospital, and SOS members were there at the time to give her information about their program. SOS was “there to make me feel like I was not alone,” recalled Reedy.
During their three years, SOS has “helped almost 1,000 patients,” explained O’Neill. Right now, the SOS program is in five hospitals in the state and the sixth hospital is about to be added. The program plans to be in eight Maryland hospitals by this time next year.
Each of the five hospitals has second generation mentors. That is, women who were mentees in the program are now returning as mentors for new SOS women. AAMC even has a third generation member that branched off from O’Neill’s initial group.
“There is very little social and emotional support. It’s a frightening diagnosis- it affects a woman’s sexuality- not having someone to talk that out with is hard. It is good for them [the mentees] to have someone to talk to. Patients really feel like they have a friend to help them through,” explained O’Neill.
Outlook for breast cancer is promising. According to the American Cancer Society, “The five-year survival rate for all women diagnosed with breast cancer is 90 percent” (Cancer Facts & Figures 2005-2006), and “When breast cancer is confined to one breast, the five-year survival rate is 98 percent” (Cancer Facts and Figures 2007). SOS provides something more meaningful than positive statistics. It provides an emotional outlet for women coping with breast cancer.