When a woman hears that she has breast cancer, the world appears to stop. These words bring many emotions, from sadness to fear. The weeks following a breast cancer diagnosis can be frightening as doctors talk about surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. Even with early detection and the knowledge that finding the cancer early offers the best chance for survival, women who hear the diagnosis may still suffer from anxiety. They also have many questions, some of which cannot be answered by a doctor who has not gone through the process. Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition (DBCC) understands all of these fears, the anxiety, and the questions. They believe that the best way to fight this battle is by knowing those diagnosed are Stronger Together, which is why they have created many programs designed to guide women through the maze of diagnosis, treatment, and living a long, healthy life as a survivor.
“Despite having a good support system of family and friends, I still felt like I wanted to talk to someone who had been diagnosed with a similar type of breast cancer and went through the same treatment that I was thinking about doing,” Donna Johnson, a 15-year survivor of breast cancer said. “I contacted the Helen F. Graham Center about support groups, and they told me about the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition and their Peer Mentor program.”
Johnson’s cancer was caught in the very early stages thanks to a routine mammogram, and she says she will “forever preach early detection.” She has no doubt that the mammogram she had on Leap Year Day in 2008 saved her life. Because her cancer was caught early, her prognosis was good and that opened up extra treatment options for her. She had a lumpectomy followed by a newer type of radiation called Mammosite, which was much shorter in duration.
“I had excellent support from my wonderful friends,” Jane Berslem, who is also a survivor, said. “I talked a lot about what I was going through, maybe they got tired of hearing about it, but they never let on. My mother died several years earlier and I have said many times I am glad she wasn’t here for the ordeal. I would have talked to her all through it and it just would have worried her. She would have been an emotional wreck which wouldn’t have helped me, so I leaned on my friends for support. It was DBCC who answered all my questions and that was so helpful for me.”
Berslem’s cancer was also discovered on a routine mammogram. The tumor was so small her surgeon could not feel it. She underwent a lumpectomy and because the margins were clear she did not require chemo. She also underwent Mammosite for her radiation treatment.
“The treatment was five days, twice a day, exactly eight hours apart,” Berslem said. “This occurred in February, and I was concerned about weather. If it snowed, I would not be able to get to the hospital. I met one lady going through this treatment who stayed in a hotel near the hospital so she wouldn’t miss her treatments.”
Berslem got involved in DBCC’s Peer Mentoring program because they were so helpful to her, and she wanted to give back to others who were going on the journey. Because Mammosite is a newer treatment method, she wanted to advise others who were considering the treatment. Johnson also reached out to the Peer Mentor program.
“I reached out to the coordinator of the program,” Johnson said. “I left her a voicemail on a Friday afternoon when she was on vacation, but she got right back to me at the beginning of the next week. I told her my story and then let her know that I was considering doing the Mammosite treatments and wanted to talk to someone who had already done it to get their opinion on it. It wasn’t long before the coordinator called back and said she had contacted Jane Berslem who would be in touch with me very soon. Little did I know that I had just found one of the silver linings to my breast cancer cloud! Jane and I emailed each and talked on the phone several times, and she did a great job putting my mind at ease about the Mammosite treatments. She even explained to me how they do the treatments so that made going into my first treatment a little less stressful.”
Johnson and Berslem met in person during the week that Johnson was undergoing treatment. They met for breakfast and have been close friends ever since. Johnson laughed that when she was walking into breakfast she saw a license plate that said “MEJANE,” only to find out that the car belonged to Berslem. The two women still get together for lunch or dinner as well as trips to Longwood and Winterthur. The two have also participated in the DBCC Nurture with Nature trips.
“It was just so nice talking with someone who understood what I was going through and could put my mind at ease since she had walked the same journey I was going through,” Johnson said. “I would never have picked getting diagnosed with cancer as an item on my Top 10 list of fun things to do in my life, but I am a better person because of it. One of the best parts of my breast cancer journey was the many wonderful people I met along the way. One of the first things I remember Jane saying to me was that she was sorry I had received this diagnosis, but I was now joining a group of people who were very supportive of one another. She was not kidding! It does my heart good every time I go on one of our fun Nurture with Nature events and spend time with other women and some men who have dealt with this disease. There is a spiritual healing power to nature as far as I am concerned and spending time out in nature with those who have learned how to appreciate what is really important in life makes the time even more special.”
Johnson joked that she recently had knee replacement surgery, something Berslem had gone through before. Berslam was able to mentor Johnson through the knee surgery, which Johnson laughed “was not in her contract.” Berslem advised anyone who was dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis to do whatever they need to do to get through it.
“If you want to talk, find someone who will listen,” Berslem said. “If you need to be by yourself sometimes, do something you enjoy, like take a walk or play with your dog or read a book. They say to keep active and engage with friends, so I used the cancer excuse to buy a new tennis racket. I justified the expense as a “medical” expense!”
Johnson agrees that everyone must follow their own path when they are diagnosed with breast cancer, but strongly recommends reaching out to DBCC for guidance and support.
“One of my birding/kayaking friends was just diagnosed with breast cancer so I told her about DBCC,” Johnson said. “She has been participating in the Breast Cancer Conversation groups for those who are newly diagnosed and now has a Peer Mentor, too. She has been very impressed by the support she has received from the DBCC and will be joining us on some Nurture with Nature events, too. It’s always nice to know you are not alone on your journey and I feel like the support that the DBCC staff and those who participate in their programs give to one another is what makes the DBCC a top-notch organization.”
The Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition (DBCC) has been serving Delaware for over 30 years working to provide breast health education to our communities, coordinate mammograms, and support those who have faced a breast cancer diagnosis, no matter where they are on their journey.
“DBCC’s survivor programs create space for survivors to feel heard, understood, safe, educated, and connected through events and activities with other breast cancer survivors. As one survivor said, “it’s a sisterhood you don’t really want to join, but you are so glad to have,” Lois Wilkinson, New Castle and Kent County Program Director, said. “DBCC has survivors on staff who have walked the journey and can provide guidance and perspective others simply cannot.”
If you or someone you know was recently diagnosed, is battling or has battled breast cancer, contact the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition to join their sisterhood of survivors, and discover how they are all stronger together by visiting debreastcancer.org. More information about the support programs they offer can be found at https://debreastcancer.org/programs/survivorprograms/.
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