By Cathy Hirsch, American Cancer Society volunteer and President of Reach to Recovery International
Ten years ago this spring, my doctor gave me the dreaded news. I had breast cancer. I was only 43 -- a married mother of two elementary school children. I had a legal career. In my view, I was much too young and much too busy to have to deal with a deadly disease. I was instantly overwhelmed with doctor's appointments, medical jargon, and trying to map out a battle plan against a disease that hides in an impenetrable grey area. I was not sure that I would survive long enough to see my children grow up. I dreaded surgery and, especially, chemotherapy and the nausea and fatigue that would come along with it. I mourned the impending loss of my hair, and wondered if I would live to see it grow back.
The dark cloud that seemed to hover over me in those early days after my diagnosis began to lift when I received a telephone call from a stranger. Her name was Allison, and she was a seven-year breast cancer survivor and an American Cancer Society Reach to Recovery volunteer.
Allison's call came during my darkest time, just days before my chemotherapy was to begin. She assured me that, although I would have some bad days, chemo would not prevent be from living my life as usual. With a few minor adjustments, I could continue to carry on most of my routine activities. Allison's words lifted my spirits like nothing else could have done. Although I had excellent health care and my doctors had explained what to expect, they had never walked in my shoes. Allison had been there, and seven years later she was still thriving. My conversation with Allison gave me something I had been sorely lacking -- hope.
Two years after completing my treatments, I was ready to pay Allison’s kindness forward by becoming a Reach to Recovery volunteer myself. I signed up with the American Cancer Society office in the Baltimore area, where I live. Since then, I have met hundreds of breast cancer patients, survivors, and volunteers in my community, all of whom have enriched my life tremendously.
In 2007, my staff partners with the American Cancer Society nominated me to become a member of the Reach to Recovery International (RRI) Committee, and to my great delight I was chosen. RRI is a program of the Union for International Cancer Control, and it is administered by the Cancer Council Queensland. It brings together breast cancer survivors, health care professionals, and advocates from all over the world to share ideas and best practices for breast cancer screening and treatment and for supporting breast cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers.
This past week, at the 17th Reach to Recovery International (RRI) Breast Cancer Support Conference in Cape Town, South Africa, I have been moved beyond words by the strength and courage of survivors I’ve listened to and met. In many ways, our struggles are the same and we are united in our sisterhood as breast cancer survivors. Cancer knows no geographic borders. Yet, the reality is that patients who are diagnosed with breast cancer in other parts of the world -- particularly low and middle income countries -- face even greater challenges than those that I faced.
Women in developing countries often lack access to breast cancer screening and, as a result, are diagnosed at a later stage. Even if they are fortunate to find their cancer early, there may not be adequate treatment facilities in their areas. In some parts of the world, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer is as low as twelve percent. Sadly, in many countries breast cancer still carries a severe social stigma and women are discouraged from seeking much-needed medical and social support.
It was my great honor this week at the RRI conference in Cape Town to accept the position of President of Reach to Recovery International. The hundreds of survivors who attended are living proof that peer support can make a tremendous difference in the fight against breast cancer. It provides women with important, factual information about their diseases, and with a safe outlet, free of judgment, to share and work through their feelings. I am proud to be a voice for Reach to Recovery -- the proto-type for all cancer peer-support organizations -- on the international level.
As a survivor, a volunteer, and a proud part of this global organization, I am grateful for the opportunity Reach to Recovery has given me, and I look forward to working closely with many of the world's most active and inspiring community breast cancer volunteers.