By Judy O’Gorman Alvarez
Among the many things a woman needs when facing breast cancer is a competent doctor, family and friends who love her, and people who can share her thoughts and fears.
Support groups, like the one started at Riverview Medical Center nine years ago by Helaine Rothman (who has since retired) that has continued informally over the years, can help women as they navigate the challenge of breast cancer.
“We have a remarkable bond,” said Lauren Stone, a second-grade teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago while she was pregnant with her first child. “We act as sounding boards for medical and personal issues.”
A good support group is helpful to get through the myriad of medical tests, treatments, surgeries, and all the assorted issues—from how to tell your children the news to the benefits of proper nutrition and how to deal with the side effects of chemotherapy.
“I have a very supportive family, but sometimes we don’t want to burden our family members with our fears and angst,” said Stone of Middletown, whose son is now 10 and whose 6-year-old daughter was born after she had chemotherapy. “A support group gives you carte blanche to express yourself.”
The group has shared jubilant news of clean scans and pregnancies, as well as sadness, and even tragedy. “We’ve lost members of our original support group and that’s one horrible thing we also have in common, but we supported each other through that, too,” Stone said.
Stone found so much comfort, camaraderie and knowledge from the women that she created and leads a similar group at her oncologist’s office. “Now I can see friendships forming in that support group.”
When Stephanie Cartier of Lincroft was diagnosed with breast cancer nine years ago, she didn’t find the group, the group found her.
Through mutual friends, members invited her to join them to share and ease her worries and concerns. “My first thought when I met these women was: I am not alone,” says Cartier, mother of three, ages 13, 16 and 17. “These were real women who had to put aside everything they ‘thought’ was important and deal with everything that really was important.
“They laughed, they made me feel good and they helped me realize that I wasn’t necessarily going to die,” Cartier said.
For Cartier, the wise and sensible words from other members going through the same experiences helped her through her treatment and she continues to cherish the friendship. “In retrospect, I feel that I was holding my breath,” she says, “and when I went to the support group I was finally able to exhale.”
Katy Badt Frissora of Fair Haven remembered the anxiety she felt she when she joined the support group in 2004. “I adjusted the bandana on my bald head and walked in,” she said. “Self pity was left at the door. Within minutes, as if to herald our arrival, wigs and bandanas came off. And with that gesture my bond with these fellow warriors was sealed, fear replaced by laughter, aloneness replaced by sisterhood and trepidation replaced by hope.”
Another member of the group, Lisa Frank of Red Bank, is a founding member of the Young Survivor Coalition, a nonprofit organization that helps to support and educate about breast cancer in younger women. In addition to her role as president of the coalition board, Frank is an avid cyclist and attorney. “My mother says the only time I’m not on my BlackBerry is when I’m under anesthesia,” she said.
As more women who are younger are diagnosed with breast cancer, the Young Survivor Coalition helps address their issues, which can be different from their older counterparts, such as fertility or menopause. Through fundraisers (including Tour de Pink, a 220+-mile, multi-day charity ride Frank co-founded), the organization has grown to 23 affiliates around the country and its members include survivors, caregivers and supporters.
“We want to put ourselves out of business because we want a cure,” says Frank.
Frank was cancer-free when she joined the support group and relished her role as survivor for the others who were at various stages of their treatments. But in 2004 when Frank had a reoccurrence, she needed the group even more. “They were wonderful,” she said.
Now Frank is battling another reoccurrence but continues her busy schedule, balancing her treatment, career, and support group. “I plan on continuing until there is a vaccine,” she said. “I intend to see that cure.”
Rhea Goldsmith of Little Silver was in her eighth month of pregnancy with her third child when her breast cancer was diagnosed. “When you’re in the midst of treatment it’s helpful to have that weekly or monthly support and talk to people who are going through the same thing you are,” Goldsmith said. “But I didn’t expect that once we were back to living our lives, the bond would continue.”
No one else can understand the treatments and the issues—from radiation side effects to breast reconstruction. “In the days after surgery we might not go anywhere in our condition—because of how we felt and how we looked — but we’d get ourselves to the support group,” she said.
According to Goldsmith, whose children are now 8, 12 and 15, a support group is valuable at every stage of treatment and recovery “When you get to survivorship — when you are five, eight or 10 years out of cancer— things may be great or there may be reoccurrence. And it’s important to have these same friends.”
Nowadays the women meet informally, celebrating milestones and good health, and continue to encourage and support one another as well as newly diagnosed women.
“We might not have found each other in another setting,” Goldsmith, said, “but because of the experience we went through together, it’s a lifelong friendship.”