Many support groups are available to help breast cancer patients navigate the emotional and physical effects of their disease, but Survivors Offering Support is a unique one-to-one peer support program for breast cancer patients. Survivors Offering Support (SOS), which is funded by a grant from the Maryland Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, provides breast cancer patients with highly trained mentors who have completed breast cancer treatment. These mentors offer knowledge, a shared experience and empathetic support.
Women interested in becoming SOS mentors first contact Edla Coleman, Shore Regional Breast Center’s SOS Coordinator, to inquire about training. “After training, mentors must be recommended by two doctors,” says Coleman. “Mentors are well trained and education is ongoing,”
The SOS program focuses on helping women deal with the psycho-social aspects of the disease. The program also offers information from physicians, nurses, physical therapists and other experts.
As a breast cancer survivor, Coleman understands the importance of the compassionate support that volunteer mentors provide. “Ideally the patient is referred to SOS soon after diagnosis,” she says. “However, SOS supports women at any stage of their treatment and into survivorship.” Usually, mentors contact the patient soon after the diagnosis, and they continue to assist her from surgery to the last oncology visit and beyond. “I was overwhelmed and confused,” says Gabrielle Smith, a new breast cancer patient. “I didn’t know what was happening. I wanted to go back to being me.”
Smith’s reaction is not unusual. A diagnosis of breast cancer, like any serious disease, is a life-changing moment.
“My mind was numb, like I was on the outside looking in. I felt like it happened to someone else,” says Janet Gadow, an SOS mentor. “I tried to get everything done, to maintain normalcy. You don’t feel strong, but you keep moving. You’re stronger than the disease.”
The first SOS program began in 2004. Its founder, Denise O’Neill, was a young mother with three adopted children when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Many support groups were available, but none offered a program like SOS,” says Coleman. “When Denise created SOS, she examined the best of the best programs and collaborated with many professionals in related fields. I joined SOS, was trained and worked as a mentor. I was later hired to become a coordinator because of my professional background and passion for the program.”
Today the SOS program is integrated into the standard of care offered in breast centers and cancer centers at 11 Maryland hospitals and one in Washington, D.C.
A vital part of the mentor program is assisting with the emotional aspect of cancer care. “There is a lot of face-to-face mentoring,” Coleman explains. “These interactions are driven by patient need; it’s not just one phone call.”
Mentors often develop long-term relationships with their patients and many times friendships form. Gabrielle Smith already has made that strong connection. “After the SOS meeting, we just sat and talked,” Smith says. “We have a lot in common.”
This mentor/patient relationship appeals to Morgan Mann, a breast cancer survivor who experienced an outpouring of support from the Cambridge community when she was diagnosed. This encouragement was an “unexpected result of cancer,” Mann says, and she wanted to give something in return. “I’m not comfortable with walks and other events,” says Mann, who is now an SOS mentor. “SOS gives me the opportunity to give back in a way I’m comfortable with.”
The need to give back is strong among SOS mentors. “It’s nice to help others and answer some of the questions I had when I was going through treatment,” Gadow says.
Talking about breast cancer is often difficult. “You don’t want to share your feelings with people close to you,” Mann says. “This is another good aspect of SOS because you have someone to share these thoughts with.”
In addition to the Volunteer Mentor program, SOS sponsors Partner Support Workshops that give husbands and significant others tools to understand what their loved ones are going through and provide guidance on caring for themselves and for their loved one. Once a breast cancer patient completes the initial medical treatment, the Transition to Wellness Workshop provides a variety of coping tools and information to help her move forward to life after breast cancer. All of these SOS programs are offered through the Shore Regional Breast Center at Memorial Hospital in Easton.
SOS serves 22 percent of breast cancer patients in Maryland. This grassroots organization is “growing exponentially,” according to Coleman, with about 325 trained mentors statewide.
“We need new mentors for the program at the Shore Regional Breast Center,” adds Coleman.
Breast cancer survivors or patients interested in the program can reach Coleman at the Shore Regional Breast Center, 410-822-1000 Ext. 5866.
In photo: Members of the Survivors Offering Support program chat with program coordinator Edla Coleman. Pictured with Coleman (second from right) are (left to right) Gabrielle Smith, mentee; Morgan Mann, mentor; and Janet Gadow, mentor. (SOSteam.jpg)