By Marty Russell

Daily Journal

When Judy Counce underwent breast cancer surgery in October of 1992, her recovery was aided by a visit from a friendly stranger who had experienced firsthand what she was going through and was living proof that a return to a normal life was possible.

“She made a very good impression,” Counce recalled of her visitor. “She would talk to me and come visit with me. She was a nurse and she had to take time out of her job to do it, just like I do.”

Counce, an employee of the Bank of Mississippi in Tupelo, went on to recover from her surgery and cancer and now serves as a volunteer in the Reach to Recovery program that matches breast cancer survivors with patients undergoing treatment for the disease.

The program has been in place at North Mississippi Medical Center for more than 10 years and is sponsored by the American Cancer Society.

Counce and social worker Cindy Edwards with NMMC’s Cancer Center say it’s the lack of time that prevents more former breast cancer patients from participating in a program that means so much to patients frightened of the disease or disfigurement.

“Right now, I believe we have six volunteers,” said Edwards, who oversees the program for the hospital. “We average about four requests a week, so we are working our volunteers to death.”

She said, ideally, the program needs about 20 volunteers to meet demand and ease the load on the volunteers.

“I can think of a lot (of survivors) who should be doing it, but they say they don’t have the time,” said Counce. “But there are a lot of people facing this. I’ve seen seven this month myself. There are a lot out there who need to help and a lot of patients who need support.”

Offering support

The program works by a doctor first requesting a visit by a volunteer for a patient who has undergone surgery for breast cancer.

“It’s just wonderful for a woman who’s undergone surgery and is lying in that hospital bed feeling all those emotions and in walks a woman who has been there looking absolutely normal,” Edwards said.

The volunteers offer support only and not medical advice, although modern procedures are affecting some aspects of the program, said Charles McVey, executive director of American Cancer Society’s state District II.

“We have changed and adapted,” McVey said. “Nowadays, part of the program is that we discuss reconstructive surgery. We don’t answer medical questions, we just mention it as one of the options.”

McVey said new techniques and early prevention are reducing the number of radical surgeries such as mastectomies, but patients who do undergo the surgery often need reminding of the exercises needed to maintain arm movement. The volunteers also are provided with literature to give to the patient for both themselves and their families and temporary breast forms to aid in recovery.

Increased need for volunteers

New surgical techniques have actually increased the need for volunteers in the program, McVey said, because they now have to be available on sometimes very short notice.

“Surgery is so good now that they do the surgery and get them out,” he said. “Our program is designed to do in the hospital, so it’s even more important that we have several (volunteers) on call.”

Volunteers must undergo a four- to six-hour training program before being accepted, Edwards said, and be recertified every two years.

“They hear a nurse clinician talk about cancer, she gives a very basic explanation of how cancer grows and what it does to the body,” Edwards said of the training. “We have a social worker who talks about how to talk to people and how to listen and respond appropriately. And we have Reach to Recovery volunteers who talk about what actually takes place in a visit from the minute they knock on the door.”

The next training session is scheduled from 8 a.m. until noon March 2 at the NMMC Cancer Center.

To qualify a volunteer must have undergone treatment for breast cancer and must have written approval from their physician or surgeon assuring that they are physically and emotionally able to participate.

For more information or to volunteer, call Edwards at 841-4049 or 1-800-843-3375.

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