Help is out there

Some of the people and groups providing breast cancer support in Butte County

As devastating as it is to be diagnosed with breast cancer, it helps to know that myriad services and a vast support system exist in Butte County. This story tells about the people and places who care about letting women know they’re not alone.

Colleen Hartsock’s tenure as a volunteer with the American Cancer Society started when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s been 19 years, and she’s still at the Mountain Valley Unit in Paradise, helping women find the help they need to get through a very trying time.

“Every one of us is here working or volunteering to help women with breast cancer because we’ve all had some type of run-in with it. Whether it was us personally, a relative or a friend, breast cancer hits everyone hard,” she said.

Hartsock is the manager of the Mountain Valley Unit and is personally in charge of setting up rides for patients who have regular medical appointments.

“It’s really important that these women have rides,” she said. “Battling with breast cancer is extremely emotional and stressful, and providing these women with rides gives them one less thing to worry about.”

ACS in Northern California has four main programs: Look Good… Feel Better, Tell a Friend, “tlc” and Reach to Recovery.

The Look Good…Feel Better program is a partnership between the ACS, the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association Foundation and the National Cosmetology Association. It’s a program for women with appearance-related side effects from chemotherapy or radiation treatment from any form of cancer.

“Dealing with the fact that you have breast cancer is difficult enough,” Hartsock said. “But when your body and appearance start to drastically change, and quickly, it just helps you still feel good about yourself and not be embarrassed or ashamed.”

The program is free and gives patients information and hands-on instruction. They are instructed on how to apply makeup and given tips for skin and nail care while they are undergoing treatment. The Look Good… Feel Better program also makes suggestions for women using wigs, turbans and scarves due to hair loss from chemotherapy or radiation.

Hartsock said the program always welcomes donations of these items and prostheses. The latter is especially important because, according to the Northern California Breast Cancer Partnership, not wearing a prosthetic breast after a mastectomy can result in spinal curvature, shoulder drop, balance problems and muscle contractions accompanied by discomfort.

The ACS’ second program, Tell a Friend, is a new program designed to encourage women to have regular mammograms. Female volunteers—more are needed—contact friends and encourage them to have a mammogram, especially women over age 40.

The ACS’ third program, “tlc,” is the production of a free catalog for women with cancer that is published twice a year. The catalog has products designed especially for breast cancer survivors, including women who have hair loss due to cancer treatment—products such as hats and turbans, wigs and hairpieces, breast forms and prostheses, bathing suits, pre-pocketed bras and lingerie and accessories. It is also filled with practical information on issues concerning women who are being treated for cancer, and its readers can buy items from their home.

Banners for Breast Cancer: Seamtress Kathie Thompson is a breast cancer survivor who makes banners to help raise funds for the cause.

The ACS’ final program, also free, is Reach to Recovery, a one-on-one support system for women and men facing or living with someone who has breast cancer. The program’s volunteers are breast cancer survivors who are trained by the ACS and meet either by phone or in person with individuals facing breast cancer. Meetings are arranged through the ACS and may be requested by a patient, family member, friend or health care team.

Enloe Medical Center also advocates for the Reach to Recovery program and has a Beyond Breast Cancer Support Group. The group provides support and up-to-date information on treatment choices to patients diagnosed with cancer.

“It’s a wonderful place,” breast cancer survivor and group member Denise Vallee said. “You get to bitch and moan and get a lot of information and support because everyone’s in the same boat.”

Vallee was diagnosed with breast cancer nine years ago and started going to the support group but quickly stopped.

“When I first went they told me, ‘Oh it’s just a little cancer, go home, don’t worry about it,'” Vallee said. “Everyone in the group was being treated and I wasn’t, so I felt like I didn’t belong.”

Vallee returned to the group this past January when she was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time and said she really looks forward to being there.

“The group’s hard to deal with at first; I was so damn sick of hearing about someone else being diagnosed again and again,” Vallee said. “But everyone has a different perspective on it, and I can talk and be supportive to other people now.”

Vallee said that being diagnosed with breast cancer has given her a different perspective on life. She said that, no matter what time she goes to bed, she will be up by 2:30 or 3 a.m. the next day.

“You have to live in the moment and glean everything you can out of a day; there’s no time to sleep,” Vallee said. “I wake up and it’s like, ‘Hey, it’s a new day and I’ve got tons to do.'”

The Beyond Breast Cancer Support Group meets the first and third Wednesday of each month at the Breast Care Center of Northern California on The Esplanade. The Breast Care Center provides diagnostic and biopsy services, as well as mammography services.

Enloe Medical Center also has a Lymphedema Clinic in the Enloe Rehabilitation Center and offers services to patients who are experiencing swelling of an area of the body, which is a condition often associated with breast cancer. Right now Enloe is offering 20 percent off any breast-fitting item purchased in its shop that is not covered by insurance. Linda Bird, Enloe’s resident garment and prosthesis fitter, helps fit items for breast cancer patients.

The Valley Ridge Hospice does its best to advocate comfort measures for breast cancer patients and spends time visiting with patients who are terminally ill.

“We had a lady once who had just had a mastectomy, then chemo and radiation,” Hospice volunteer Dossue Thornton said. “All she wanted to do was go outside. So when she was well enough we took her out.”

Seamstress Kathie Thompson is also involved in a mission to make the lives of breast cancer patients better. Thompson’s enterprise, Banners from the Heart, is her way of dealing breast cancer and helping other survivors. Thompson made her first banner to hang outside her home last October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and they almost instantly became popular.

Thompson and fellow members of the American Sewing Guild made and donated 10 banners to the Breast Cancer Awareness Task Force to help encourage women to take better care of their bodies. Thompson, who also attends the Beyond Breast Cancer Support Group, donates a percentage of her banner earnings to the task force every month.

“When I’m making the banners I think of some of the women," Thompson said. "I think of the women who have died and the women who are still fighting breast cancer, and it gives me a purpose to face each day as something new."