Saturday marks the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure to fight breast cancer. In Idaho, 117 out of every 100-thousand women will get the disease. It’s a frightening diagnosis. One group works to help the newly diagnosed through the maze of doctors, treatments, and emotions.
Jan Johnson did not sit still when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She consulted with doctors, did some research on her own. It was February of last year when she decided to have a lumpectomy. A month later, she had a mastectomy. “When that happened, I had a really huge low point.”
It was a tough time. She says she kept calling the doctor’s office with questions. “The nurse in the doctor’s office gave me a referral because I was kind of struggling with some things and I wanted more people to talk to.”
That referral put her in touch with the non-profit Angel Care Breast Cancer Foundation. The group is made up of breast cancer survivors. Johnson was connected with “Angel” Elaine Gibson, to help guide her through her diagnosis and treatment. “You know, you’re so strong through all of this and then all the treatment’s over with and it’s like, now what, who’s taking care of me now, what’s gonna happen to me now, and this was very fearful.”
There are twelve Angels in Boise and they provide one-on-one mentoring free of charge. They give advice, keep up on research, and will even travel to radiation or medical appointments with patients. Gibson says the diagnosis of breast cancer is a life changing experience. “After we’ve gone through breast cancer and treatment, our lives are different, and we’ll never be the same again quite, but we find our new normalcy.”
And Angels help with that transition. Gibson and Johnson say they’re friends. They talk about normal things, like grandkids and gardening. But they also talk about the cancer. “The frustrations and how easy, how fragile you feel, it’s, I’m gonna tear up, it gets, um, it just happens, you know you start thinking about everything that you’ve been through and you don’t think that it impacts you that much,” says Johnson, “and then, all of a sudden you have to pick up the phone and say…” Gibson chimes in, “I do the same thing, even after twelve years.”
Gibson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. She’s been through it all, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation. She got involved with Angel Care when she lived in Washington state. When she moved to Idaho, she helped set up a chapter here. She says being an Angel is a rewarding and ongoing commitment. “I’m still helping women that I met five years ago, and we have coffee once and a while and have gone to doctor’s appointments with them and sometimes there’s little fears that come in there and we talk about that, never ending, keeps going.”
When Gibson and Johnson say the shared experience of surviving breast cancer gives them a rare bond. “And the general population, they just don’t get that,” says Johnson. “No, no, nobody knows what it’s like, other than a breast cancer survivor, we’ve been there and done that, and we can help others go through that too.”
That support is invaluable when fighting breast cancer. That’s according to Cheryl Nelson. “Having somebody who knows what it’s like to go through it is just essential.” Nelson is the Integrative Care Program Coordinator at the Saint Alphonsus Cancer Care Center. She helps cancer patients with their emotional care. She says groups like Angel Care give patients what they need to cope with isolation. “People who seek out support and community, do a little bit better with coping with it all, because it’s just too hard to do on your own,” says Nelson. “Just knowing somebody’s there, even just to hold your hand while you’re going to an appointment, makes all the difference, so it’s not such a lonely experience.”
For Johnson, having an Angel in her life has given her a resource she couldn’t find anywhere else. “I know for me, it’s helped me open up and share a lot more.”
Gibson says being Johnson’s Angel helps her as well. “I wouldn’t have missed out on these incredible women that I have met, like you, for anything in my life, I have just met so many beautiful, wonderful women and it’s enriched my life and it’s made me a better person, I think.”
Johnson recently had her one-year anniversary as a survivor of breast cancer. She and Gibson work together now to spread the word about their group, so more patients can find their own Angels as they fight the disease.
Find an Angel by contacting the Angel Care Breast Cancer Foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (208) 938-4171 or (208) 938-3266 or (208) 888-1095.
Copyright 2012 Boise State Public Radio