Thursday, June 4th, 2009
Teaming up in Mercer County to battle breast cancer
By Shelley Grieshop
Delores Cron recalls feeling terrified and alone the day she was told she had breast cancer.
It was 1975 and resources to help women cope with the fall-out from the frightening disease were few in the rural communities of Mercer County. Cron of Coldwater had many questions.
"I just wanted some answers," she says.
Then a friend dropped by. Jane Hammond, who had experienced breast cancer surgery the year before, was coordinator for the local Reach to Recovery program. As a certified volunteer for the program, Hammond not only answered Cron's questions, she gave her the emotional support she desperately needed.
Soon after Cron's modified radical breast surgery, she decided to join Hammond in the Reach to Recovery program. Cron recently announced her retirement after 33 years with the program. Hammond passed away in October 1995.
Reach to Recovery was founded 40 years ago in California by a woman named Terese Lasser, who learned firsthand that women with breast cancer often face the fight of their life uninformed. In 1969, the program was officially adopted by the American Cancer Society (ACS). Currently, there are about 17,000 volunteers nationwide; Mercer County has five.
Program volunteers meet with patients before and after surgery and treatment. They hand out educational booklets, offer exercise instructions and tell women where to obtain prosthesis, breast forms, wigs and other related items, if needed. Their biggest job, they say, is to listen and provide hope.
According to the ACS, there were an estimated 31 newly-diagnosed breast cancer patients in Mercer County in 2008.
Cron served area residents through a partnership with the ACS and Mercer County Community Hospital in Coldwater.
"Any person diagnosed with breast cancer can receive benefits from this program," says Registered Nurse Barb Uhlenhake, who coordinates the program through the hospital's pre-admission testing department.
Uhlenhake has early contact with newly-diagnosed patients, allowing her immediate access to women seeking help prior to medical procedures.
Program volunteers and coordinators must be certified and undergo recertification every two years. Listening to cancer survivors tell their stories is a highlight of the training, Uhlenhake says.
"It is very moving to sit and listen to these women who have been affected by breast cancer and how they coped with their experience. They have moved on to extend their help to other women facing similar diagnosis," she says. "They are special women and I am always deeply humbled by their strength and compassion."
The women who give so much of themselves to others, do so without pay. Uhlenhake says she has always admired Cron's professional, yet caring attitude.
"She has been a tremendous asset to this program. She has a deep understanding of what people and their families are going through when facing cancer," she says.
Cron recalls an elderly couple who had weathered a lot of heartbreak during their lifetime. The husband was "quite torn up" about his wife's diagnosis and was certain their life together was over, Cron says.
"He said his wife was his friend and partner and she surely was going to die," she recalls.
She explained to him that she had undergone the same surgery more than a decade ago. She was living proof that his wife could survive, too.
"He really perked up after that," she says.
As volunteers, Reach to Recovery members cannot give medical advice. What they can do is help keep a patient's morale up, "which otherwise can be quite discouraging during the healing process," Cron adds.
Patients often worry about every ache, pain or swelling after treatment. That's normal, she says. She advises patients to listen to the signs and communicate those fears with their doctor.
Through the years there were some women who truly struggled with their diagnosis, she says.
"Some were just beside themselves with the news. They couldn't accept it. I remember talking to one woman and telling her, 'You have all this medical science in your corner, now let it up to your creator, let your faith take over,'" Cron told her.
Younger women seem to struggle the most, she adds.
Unlike the women before her, no one today has to go through this alone, she says.
"I'm sure most women experience a lot of sleepless nights when they get the news. It's important they know there's help out there," Cron says.