Embracing cancer's lessons

When Denise O'Neill completed breast cancer treatment, she realized how unready she had been. Now her program trains survivors to help new patients learn and cope.

March 20, 2005|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Linda Perez said it was a little more than a year ago when her life came to a screeching halt on the cool steel table of a doctor's office at Anne Arundel Medical Center.

"The doctor looked and me and told me there was cancer in my breast," said Perez. "A lot of cancer."

A nurse, wife and mother of three, Perez said she recalls walking out of the office and sinking into a chair in the hospital lobby.

That's when - if only for a moment - a flash of hope came to her.

"This woman just walked up to me and put her hand on my shoulder," said Perez, 44. "She looked at me and said, `You are exactly where I was one year ago.' "

The woman, Denise O'Neill - also a mother of three - had recently undergone radiation and surgery for the breast cancer she was diagnosed with in April 2003.

"The fact that I could look into the eyes of someone with cancer made me think, `If this bright, beautiful woman can do it, maybe I can, too,' " Perez recalled.

It was this kind of encouragement that O'Neill had in mind when she founded Survivors Offering Support, an all-volunteer group of women who have successfully battled breast cancer.

The idea came to O'Neill after she completed her treatment and began to gather the notes she kept throughout the experience - many of them written during long hours in waiting rooms. A businesswoman who served as a vice president of sales and marketing for Nabisco, O'Neill said that when she went back and re-read her notes, she realized something was missing from breast cancer care.

"It doesn't matter how strong you are," she said. "When you're diagnosed with cancer, the rug is pulled out from underneath you."

To make matters worse, O'Neill added: "You've only got about three weeks to gain information and make decisions about your treatment. That's difficult for most people because they're not well-versed in medical terminology and the staging of cancer."

With encouragement from her husband, O'Neill drafted a plan for a patient-support program that would pair newly diagnosed women with breast cancer survivors, or mentors, who would help them understand treatment options and cope with the disease.

O'Neill presented the plan to doctors at Anne Arundel Medical Center's Breast Center just outside Annapolis, who enthusiastically offered their support.

Taking a yearlong absence from her job so she could recruit women and plan a training program, O'Neill learned everything she could about breast cancer support. By April 2004 she had trained 51 mentors. As of last week, that number had climbed to 72.

The headquarters for the SOS group is a library on the ground floor of the hospital's Sajak Pavilion, where the Breast Center is located. Open 24 hours a day to the more than 100 patients who visit the Breast Center daily, the library is staffed by SOS volunteers.

"There is something so warm and comforting about the library," said Barbara Easterling, administrative director for the Breast Center. "We try to make it as pleasant as possible for patients."

The library is filled with books on breast cancer - from holistic healing to diet and caregiving - many of them donated with the help of Lynn Reynolds, 58, of Arnold.

Reynolds, who founded a group of cancer survivors called Pink Cottage after her own experience with the disease, donated the funds her group raised to an overhaul of the library - a peaceful room where many women find solace immediately after being diagnosed with cancer.

"We make sure there is no gap when they are sitting there wondering what might happen to them," Reynolds said.

Becoming mentors

To volunteer for SOS, breast cancer survivors must complete a four-step training process that begins at the hospital, where doctors brief them on treatment options and the pathology of the disease.

Then, volunteers are trained in mentoring "do's and don'ts." The "don'ts," O'Neill said, include offering medical advice to patients. Instead, mentors are encouraged to always point patients back to their doctors.

A mentor must obtain two signed releases from doctors saying she is emotionally prepared to support a patient.

"The emotional trauma that comes with being diagnosed with cancer is great and can take years to understand," O'Neill explained. "If you've not progressed emotionally through the disease, then mentoring someone can be hurtful instead of positive."

`No boundaries'

O'Neill added that mentors have to prepare themselves for the possibility that they might lose a patient to breast cancer, which happened for the first time last December. In addition, the job is around-the-clock.

"We have no boundaries," O'Neill said.

When she mentored Perez, O'Neill shared her cell phone number and called to check in while on a family vacation.

"She was always honest with me - even telling me to expect some dark days when I might wonder if I would die," said Perez. "She also told me to be honest with my kids, who were really suffering at the time and scared."

It's been three months since Perez completed her chemotherapy and surgery treatment for breast cancer. Her hair is growing back into a cropped cut that frames her cheeks, now flushed and healthy-looking. When she talks about cancer, she sounds strong and victorious.

"I feel like I can tackle anything now, except more cancer," Perez said.

Sometime in the near future, Perez said she hopes to volunteer for SOS and provide other women with the hope and support O'Neill offered to her - from the moment she was diagnosed until she started to feel like herself again.

"I can't imagine what I would have done without her," Perez said. "This kind of support is not just helpful, it's invaluable."

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