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What's Up Magazine

Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Oct 07, 2014 04:27PM ● By Cate Reynolds
Survivors Offering Support: Helping Women Navigate the Emotional and Physical Effects of Breast Cancer

Courtesy of University of Maryland Shore Regional Health

A diagnosis of breast cancer challenges not only the patient but also her family and friends. Often the patient’s inner circle is less able to cope with the diagnosis. These friends and family are not unsympathetic; they’re frightened. Breast cancer patients need someone to share their fears, but to protect loved ones from worry and sadness, they often avoid discussing these feelings. Survivors Offering Support (SOS) is a unique hospital-based program that provides the breast cancer patient with a mentor, a peer survivor who has shared her experience and understands what she is going through. For the last 10 years, SOS has served thousands of newly diagnosed women in Maryland who have benefited in countless ways by having a trained mentor outside their own inner circle.

“Mentoring support reduces patient anxiety and lessens fear of the unknown,” said Edla Coleman, a 15-year breast cancer survivor and SOS Program Coordinator at the Comprehensive Breast Center, UM Shore Regional Health. “SOS is peer-to-peer emotional and informational support. Mentors are hand-picked and highly recommended by their doctors to be good candidates.” SOS mentors are trained not only in mentoring skills, but also in surgical options, about lymphedema and about the patient’s common concerns, and they are kept up-to-date about breast cancer information.

Mentors are matched with their mentees based on several factors including breast cancer stage and treatment, interests and family background. “I do an extensive intake session with a newly diagnosed person in order to assess her needs,” Coleman said. “While we consider factors for matching such as age and course of treatment, we also learn about the patient’s personality and individual characteristics to find a good match.”

Morgan Mann, a five-year breast cancer survivor, has been a mentor since the UM Shore Regional Health SOS program began in 2011. “There’s been a huge growth in demand for mentors,” she said, “and we really need more. Matches are carefully made so that the mentor/mentee can work together.”

Mann feels one of the benefits of SOS is the mentee’s “ability to discuss her feelings with someone who’s not involved in her immediate world but shares the mentee’s experiences.” Mann faced this frustration during her own breast cancer journey. “There were so many things I wanted to say, but I knew it would be hard for my family and friends to hear. A mentee can discuss these feelings and fears with her mentor because we can empathize with her concerns rather than just sympathize with her situation.”

Trina Ewell is currently going through breast cancer treatment, and Mann’s mentoring has encouraged her. “It has been helpful to hear other people’s thoughts and opinions, to talk with someone who has been through this experience,” Ewell said. Like Mann, Ewell’s family and friends have struggled to handle her breast cancer diagnosis. “I valued my family’s opinions, but I had to do what was right for me.” Talking with Mann eased her concerns and gave her someone to rely on who could empathize with her but not be emotionally involved.

“We offer support in whatever capacity the mentee wants,” said Mann. “A mentor has to be sensitive to the mentee’s needs, but stay flexible. We are not giving medical advice; we are providing relief from fear. I tell my mentees to be pro-active. This is your life; you are saving your life, so fight for it.”

“SOS has trained almost 400 women at the various hospital locations throughout Maryland, Virginia and DC, and mentors report that they benefit just as much if not more than the patient,” Coleman said. “It brings the breast cancer experience full circle and turns a hard experience into something very positive.” Mentors love “giving back,” offering support and resources that help make the journey of another woman less frightening.

“Seeing someone that has survived and is doing well is a bright light at the end of an uncertain tunnel,” said Coleman. “Mentoring is an experience with no requirements or commitment parameters. Most of our mentors work full time in regular jobs, and still, they want to reach out to other women. Mentors may opt to take on several patients during a year, or just one. In either case, they are making a big difference in a world filled with so many new diagnoses.”

Besides mentoring, Survivors Offering Support offers Transition to Wellness and Partner Support Workshops for patients and their families. SOS is supported by collaboration between the hospital and a grant from Susan G. Komen/Maryland. Currently, the SOS program at Shore Regional Health is seeking women who would like to give back and become a mentor. To learn more about SOS, to request a mentor or if you are interested in mentoring opportunities, please contact Edla Coleman at ecoleman@shorehealth.org or call 410-822-1000 X 5866.