The Pink Ribbon Connection of Indiana held a training session for would-be Breast Cancer Peer Counselors Wednesday night at Decatur County Memorial Hospital.
Pink Ribbon Executive Director Dori Sparks-Unsworth spoke favorably of her latest group of volunteers.
“I was so impressed with the group of women around that table,” she said. “You could feel how ready they were to take breast cancer on again; it was almost like they were tackling it again in their own lives. They’ve already fought it on their own and now they’re ready to help somebody else fight it. I was so impressed.”
The class was led by Christine I Ward, Ph.D.
According to her website (www.christineiwardphd.com), Ward is a “licensed clinical psychologist in Indiana, specializing in the evaluation and treatment of adults and adolescents.” In addition to her expertise in helping patients learn to live with cancer, she also specializes in anxiety, depression, grief and relationship issues.
Ward lost a friend from high school — Molly — to breast cancer several years ago and has been involved with helping breast cancer patients cope ever since. She’s been on the Pink Ribbon’s Advisory Board for “many years,” she said. Of her friend, she added, “Before she died, she made me promise to help other people like her.”
The approximately hour-long session laid out both Ward’s and Pink Ribbon’s peer counseling philosophy and worked to prepare the new recruits — all of them breast cancer survivors — to become effective peer counselors.
From the outset, Ward reminded the women that peer counseling can be critical in improving a breast cancer patient’s outcome. Research, she said, has regularly shown that having an empathetic ear in which to confide — having a support network — improves patient outcomes and increases survivorship rates.
In fact, the most prominent element of peer counseling, as communicated by the presentation, is empathy and empathetic listening.
To that end, Ward’s presentation advised the new volunteers to “create a calm, quiet, environment,” and to listen as “receiver, not as critic,” without judgment, fear and without offering advice. Ward also advised the women to avoid telling their own stories unless specifically asked and to control both their distractions and their emotions and to ask “open-ended” questions.
According to the information provided Tuesday night, the most common mode of interaction for peer counselors and newly diagnosed breast cancer patients is over the phone. Sparks-Unsworth confirmed, however, that face-to-face meetings aren’t uncommon.
After the class, Sparks-Unsworth agreed that peer-counseling is extremely important to patient outcomes.
“It makes a huge difference,” she said. “Pain shared is pain learned. When we have people around us who care, people who we can talk to and in whom we can confide about this, it helps us feel better, because we’re not keeping it inside.”
Thursday’s session included a male breast cancer survivor.
Sparks-Unworth acknowledged that male breast cancer is exceedingly rare (the American Cancer Society [www.cancer.org] projects 2,240 new invasive male breast cancer cases in 2013, with roughly 410 of those dying). Thursday’s new volunteer was her first male peer counselor to date, she added.
“There’s such a lack of knowledge out there regarding male breast cancer,” she said. “I’ve heard so many men say, ‘well men can’t get breast cancer.’ Yes you can, and men need to be aware of that fact.”
Unfortunately, Sparks-Unsworth knows of no organizations dedicated to the issue.
The executive director encouraged any local woman who might be interested in becoming a breast cancer peer counselor to give the Pink Ribbon Connection a call.
“The most important qualities in an effective peer counselor, I think, are compassion and empathy,” she said.
She added, “I’ve been with Pink Ribbon around six years. We’ve had between 100 and 150 peer counselor volunteers; none of them have ever backed out of the program. If you’re interested in and drawn to being a peer counselor, chances are, you’d be a good one.”
Sparks-Unsworth is currently trying to arrange peer-counselor training sessions in Rushville, Columbus and Shelbyville, but currently has nothing formalized.
For more information on breast cancer peer counseling, call the Pink Ribbon Connection at, 317-255-PINK (7465).
Contact: Rob Cox at 812-663-3111 x7011