A Guiding Hand

Reach to Recovery offers peer support for breast cancer patients

The American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery program provides free one-on-one support between breast cancer patients and survivors.
Linda Hoffman was lying in a hospital bed in 1976, recovering from her first mastectomy, when she first heard about it.

The 26-year-old mother was dealing with her first of two breast cancer diagnoses. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation for a year after the surgery. Fourteen years later, she had a whole new diagnosis, and underwent another mastectomy and more treatment afterward.

"They cut as much as they possibly could," she said. "At the end of it all, it showed I was fine. But it can come back. It was really unnerving every single time I had to go back and get checked."

That was 30 years ago in southern Illinois. Hoffman is now retired and living in Marana, cancer-free.

After her first surgery, Hoffman's health provider informed her of a peer-to-peer support program offered at no cost through the American Cancer Society, specifically for people battling breast cancer.

Soon after, a breast cancer survivor from St. Louis visited Hoffman. They talked about the challenges she faced and questions she had. The experience was so comforting that Hoffman decided to participate in it.

Through their Reach to Recovery program, ACS recruits breast cancer survivors across the country to work as volunteers. Based on information about their diagnosis, treatments and other characteristics, the volunteers are matched with current breast cancer patients, whom they schedule meetings with to discuss the patients' issues and provide support from a person who has experienced it.

All of the information shared during the visits are 100 percent confidential.

"I just wanted to be able to help other women, because it's a really, really lonely experience," Hoffman said. "It's very scary, and it's hard to understand all of the medical jargon sometimes."

While the volunteers cannot provide medical advice to patients, they can help in other aspects of the journey.

"Our volunteers understand the challenges, and the questions and concerns that come with the diagnosis, and they really just want to be able to provide support to others in their community that are facing the same thing," said Taylor Ransom with the American Cancer Society. "A lot of it is just learning about the experience, what they can expect."

To be eligible, volunteers must be at least one year post-treatment, not including hormone therapies. To get started, they complete a five-hour online training session. Then, they are transitioned through a care team before they connect with a local program near their residence. From there, a coordinator connects them to other patients and helps them schedule visits.

"They're matched up with a volunteer that has the most similarities with them," Ransom said. "It is based on diagnosis, surgery type, but then it's other things like age, gender, language and race. Some people want, if they're a single mother, someone else that's a single mother. Things like that that can really understand the challenges that they're facing."

There are 32 volunteers spread across Arizona, according to Ransom. Nation-wide, ACS has a network of more than 7,800 volunteers.

"The program began in 1952, it was started by a breast cancer survivor herself," Ransom said. "It started in New York City and we adopted the program in 1969. Since then we've provided help to 1.5 million breast cancer patients through our volunteers."

Patients can be referred to the Reach to Recovery program through their doctors, caregivers, health insurance providers and more. The American Cancer Society has a National Cancer Information Center hotline, which anyone can call to get information about the program and get connected with regional volunteers.

Ransom said the volunteers usually have about four visits with their patients, but any patient can request additional visits or work with other volunteers at no cost.

About four years ago, there were no volunteers in the greater Tucson area. Hoffman filled that role, and recruited three more breast cancer survivors to participate.

"It was the fact that I had found out that there was hardly anybody here," she said. "I heard of an older woman who was doing it, and then she stopped and there was nobody. I couldn't imagine that there was nobody. A lot of people in Tucson don't even know the program exists."

Hoffman prefers to only work with patients who have Stage 3 or Stage 4 breast cancer, because that's what she dealt with decades ago.

"I tell them I know how scary it is, and that it's sometimes difficult to make a decision on the kind of treatment that you want," Hoffman said. "I can't give them any kind of medical advice, but I can tell them what happened with me, and show them that I am still living after it and there is a productive life after cancer. It is powerful when you don't know what to do, period."

ACS makes sure all volunteers can provide their matched patients with up-to-date information about medical studies on breast cancer, as well as information about non-medical resources that the organization provides, such as free transportation to treatment, free or reduced-cost lodging and financial assistance.

"The American Cancer Society tries to attack it from all angles, it takes more than chemotherapy, it takes more than radiation and colored ribbons," Ransom said. "It takes a group of people supporting one another, and so this program provides the necessary peer-to-peer outlet for people that are dealing with a cancer diagnosis and it helps with our mission goals to improve the quality of life for people facing breast cancer."

If you are a patient looking for a match with a volunteer, a breast cancer survivor looking to become a volunteer, or a medical professional looking to refer breast cancer patients to the Reach to Recovery program, call the American Cancer Society's NCIC hotline at 1-800-227-2345.

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