When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was a sophomore in college. After absorbing the shock of the news, I put myself on auto-pilot, diving back into the demands and familiar routine of school. When worries about my mom’s health would pop up, I’d try to push these concerns to the back of my mind. I knew her doctors had a treatment plan, and for a long time, it worked. But as my mom’s cancer became more advanced, so did my fears, and I often struggled to be the supportive daughter I knew my mom needed.
While managing the medical and physical effects of an illness usually comes first, addressing the emotional and mental health impact of a serious diagnosis is just as important. Finding support, understanding, and a safe place to express feelings like fear, helplessness, anger and sadness can be a challenge, not only for patients, but also for those who love them.
ABCD (After Breast Cancer Diagnosis) is an organization in Milwaukee that is working to change this. Founded in 1999 by Melodie Wilson after her initial battle with breast cancer, ABCD offers emotional support to breast cancer patients, along with their friends and family members, through its certified volunteer mentors. Mentors can be individuals who have experienced breast cancer personally, or had someone close to them receive a diagnosis.
SHARED EXPERIENCES :: PERSONALIZED SUPPORT
After an intensive training program for its volunteers, ABCD matches mentors with patients and their co-survivors—husbands, partners, family members and friends. By pairing up people with similar demographic and diagnostic backgrounds, ABCD aims to foster strong connections based on shared experiences.
“The difference between ABCD and other support groups is the personalization,” says Judy Mindin, Communications Director at ABCD. “The biggest thing is that you’re actually speaking with someone who’s been in your shoes.” For example, a single mother facing breast cancer would be paired with a mentor who had a similar diagnosis and support system. Had I known about ABCD and reached out to the organization during my mom’s illness, I would have been paired with a mentor whose mother also experienced breast cancer.
Mentors and participants communicate initially via phone, and can choose to meet in person if desired. Mindin emphasizes that there is no timetable for the mentoring relationship; some pairings involve just one or two conversations, while others are lifelong. Because ABCD’s services are primarily phone-based, anyone across the country—or even throughout the world—can receive support. All services are free; if necessary, ABCD will provide phone cards to ensure there’s no cost to the person receiving support.
My mom fought her disease for six years. Looking back, I realize how critical it was for both of us to have extra support during that time, and I only wish I had sought it out more. Because my mom had always been the person I turned to for help, it became tricky to manage my escalating anxiety about her illness. Every time my mom didn’t return an e-mail promptly or sounded “off” over the phone, all the worst case scenarios played out in my mind. My mom was the patient, yet many times, I was the person who felt like a complete basket case; I was the one who needed comfort and reassurance.
A family friend whose mother had also experienced breast cancer was kind enough to take me out to dinner and just let me vent. We also talked over the phone and e-mailed occasionally. I realize now that she was my unofficial mentor, and I’m so grateful she was willing to share her experience with me. She helped me explore and normalize my feelings during a scary and uncertain time. Because of her support, I was ultimately able to be stronger for my mom.
Whether you are facing a serious illness or have a friend or family member who is, it is incredibly comforting to hear, “Yes, that happened to me, too. You are not alone.” To be heard, acknowledged and understood by someone who has walked in your shoes is both powerful and healing.
To learn more about ABCD’s support services for those impacted by breast cancer, including how to get a mentor or train to become one, visit ABCD’s web site.