Reaching to recovery: ACS program connects cancer patients with survivors

When Belinda Johnson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, she received lots of support from family and friends. But she also received a unique kind of support from a woman she didn’t even know – a Reach to Recovery volunteer.

“A Reach to Recovery lady contacted me in the first month after my diagnosis,” Johnson said. From there the new friends had several conversations, and Johnson took advantage of her new support system. “Even though I was a nurse, it’s very different when it hits personally. It was definitely hard to discuss with any family members because it was too emotional, and I didn’t want to scare my family members.” Johnson found it easier, she said, to talk with strangers – and in her Reach to Recovery volunteer, she found the emotional support she needed.

After Johnson came through her own cancer journey to survival, she became involved in the American Cancer Society’s Action Network – and soon became a Reach to Recovery volunteer herself.

“Being a nurse and having someone contact me, it was a good fit for me to be a volunteer with that program to help others,” Johnson said. “I truly do believe in the program. What made me want to be involved was that a lot of times when someone is diagnosed with breast cancer, they might not have any friends or family who have been through it, or it might be hard for them to talk to their friends and family about it. It gives them somebody to talk to, vent to, to ask questions, someone to direct them places for help if they need it.

“It’s hard to talk about with the people you are closest to.”

For more than 45 years, the American Cancer Society Reach To Recovery program has been helping people cope with their breast cancer experience, according to www. cancer.org – as early as the first possibility of a diagnosis and continuing for as long as breast cancer remains a personal concern to them.

“Finding out you have breast cancer can make you feel overwhelmed, vulnerable and alone,” the ACS website explains. “Suddenly having to learn about complex medical treatments and trying to choose the best one can also be stressful during this time. Our Reach To Recovery volunteers are specially trained to help people through their experience by offering a measure of comfort and an opportunity for emotional grounding and informed decision making. As breast cancer survivors, our volunteers give patients and family members an opportunity to express feelings, talk about fears and concerns and ask questions of someone who has been there. Most importantly, Reach To Recovery volunteers offer understanding, support and hope because they themselves have survived breast cancer and gone on to live productive lives.”

Johnson said she learned from experience how helpful that could be. As someone who didn’t know many people who had gone through it – and those she did had lost their battles – she needed the encouragement from someone who could speak with the voice of experience.

“That was the most helpful thing to me in the first month of my treatment – hearing from other survivors who had survived for many years,” she said. “If they did it, and they were healthy, then I could do it too.”

Anna Duncan, ACS community development manager in Franklin County, said she hopes more people will feel comfortable taking advantage of the program

“We want people to feel supported in every phase of the cancer journey,” Duncan said. “When you hear the words ‘You have cancer,’ we don’t want you to feel alone. We are ready and willing to be there with you, whether it’s 2 o’clock in the morning or 2 o’clock in the afternoon.”

Duncan said although some cancer patients are comfortable sharing their fears and concerns with family and friends, “when you’re going through the chemo and radiation, and your hair is falling out and your body is changing, it helps to talk to somebody who has been there – who has actually been through it. They can offer them insight and comfort.

“The unknown and unexpected are so scary, to actually speak to someone who has already come out the other side offers a whole lot of hope.”

Duncan said people in need of support can make contact with volunteers in person, over the phone or even virtually – day or night.

“They are not going to care if you call crying or mad. These are people who are trained and who deal with all emotions,” Duncan said. “It’s there for you, and you can talk as long as you need to.”

Johnson said the free program can be a key source of support, for those who take advantage of it.

“I knew how important that was – to hear somebody say, “I’m on the other side, and I’m OK,” she said. “Your attitude and your outlook are a big percentage of your recovery. Something like Reach to Recovery helps that – your attitude and that part of your treatment.”

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