When Renee Strietelmeier realized something was wrong, her initial reaction was to keep it to herself. Having lost her best friend to breast cancer two years ago, the 48-year-old said she didn’t even want to tell her parents.
“No one wants to drag their family and friends through the horrors of cancer,” said Strietelmeier, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in February.
Concerned for the welfare of her husband, Scott, and 7-year-old son, Jacob, she knew she would need support. But where to start?
In recent years, the number of traditional breast cancer support groups has declined.
The availability of online resources and individuals’ increasingly busy schedules have lessened the need for weekly and monthly meetings. Women are finding it easier to connect independently with other breast cancer patients and survivors. Acknowledging the trend, area hospitals and caregivers now act as facilitators to connect women with one another.
At Columbus Regional Hospital, nurse navigators guide breast cancer patients along their journey (from biopsy to diagnosis and beyond) by educating them about their illness and explaining treatment options. Often, the navigators offer their personal numbers so patients can reach them day or night with questions and concerns.
Nurse navigator Beth Staker believes busy lives and the public’s increased awareness about breast cancer have contributed to the decrease in the number of traditional support groups.
“We emphasize that our goal is to give them the information that is specific to their diagnosis,” Staker said, “and to help them make the choices that they are comfortable with and are best for their situation.”
Staker said that, if a woman is struggling, the navigators will pair her with a woman of similar age and diagnosis who is willing to share her experience and offer support.
In December 2005, Bonnie Nolting was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. During her journey, Nolting found that she needed cheerleaders.
“When I was diagnosed, I looked for a support group but couldn’t find one,” Nolting said. “I needed it badly because I am a people person, and I needed to be around others who had the same problems.”
As Nolting continued her journey through cancer, she found more and more people were calling her for advice. Having had tremendous support from her family, Nolting felt a desire to give back to others. The absence of a formal support group in the area prompted her to start one in February 2010.
Known as Bonnie’s Bunch, Nolting’s group is an eclectic mix of individuals and is not confined to just those who’ve received a breast cancer diagnosis but all types of cancer. Nolting, whose cancer has been in remission since June 2006, said it’s important for people to understand that there is life after cancer and that it is not a death sentence.
As a new member is introduced to the group, she is given a pink bound notebook, in which all the members sign their names along with their contact information. The idea is that no matter the time of day, if you need to talk, all you have to do is reach out and someone will be there.
Describing the current group as a sorority of cancer survivors, Nolting said new members feel comfortable almost immediately. Composed of woman in their 40s and older, Nolting’s 74-year-old mother, who received her diagnosis in October 2006, is a member of the group.
The Bunch meets up to twice a month at a members’ homes or in the community. Whether it is a breakfast meeting or participating in fundraisers for breast cancer awareness, including Susan G. Komen events, the group is active.
“We’re out here to help people and let them know they’re not alone,” Nolting said.
Strietelmeier joined Bonnie’s Bunch in February 2010. Having known Nolting for years, Strietelmeier’s diagnosis hadn’t been confirmed when she reached out to her. In addition to joining Nolting’s group, Strietelmeier said the online resource caringbridge.org
is another support system she has used to stay in touch with people she knows in other communities.
There are numerous online resources for information and support available to breast cancer patients. Staker said she encourages patients to visit medically reputable sites such as the American Cancer Society, Susan G. Komen and the National Cancer Institute. She cautions individuals who utilize online resources to stick with no more than three sites, because the vast amount of information can be overwhelming.
The key is to find the resources and support that best fits you and your situation. The right support can make all the difference.
“When you are scared to death, the fear of the unknown is only going to weigh you down even more,” Strietelmeier said. “Having someone, even a stranger, who has survived is a blessing from heaven.”