Editor's note: During the month of May, the Tribune Chronicle will look at some of the American Cancer Society programs funded by local Relay For Life efforts.
A breast cancer diagnosis can feel like the end of the world, but Reach to Recovery volunteer Lillie Johnson of Warren insists that it isn't.
"For most people, when you say 'cancer' you think 'death,'" said Johnson. "But there's life after cancer, there really is."
Johnson is a breast cancer survivor and a volunteer for Reach to Recovery, an American Cancer Society breast cancer support program.
"Reach to Recovery is a program for breast cancer patients and breast cancer survivors," said Debbie Moore, health initiatives representative at the American Cancer Society. "It's peer-to-peer support, so the breast cancer volunteer will meet one-on-one with someone who's newly diagnosed with breast cancer. All of our volunteers are breast cancer survivors. It's for emotional support and information."
Reach to Recovery matches volunteers with newly diagnosed breast cancer patients based on diagnosis, type of treatment, age and location.
"Nobody can do for someone who's newly diagnosed with breast cancer what a Reach volunteer can do, because they've been there," Moore said.
Johnson has been a volunteer for Reach to Recovery for 16 years and has been a support for more than 35 newly diagnosed breast cancer patients, including Eleanor Barnum of Warren.
"It was a terrible shock when I got the telephone call, naturally. It's a shock to anybody," said Barnum, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. "Lillie was a big support. I remember when I was in a state of shock in the beginning and I said, 'I can't let this get me down and I can't let my family worry about me.' Lillie put things in a different perspective for me, and she helped me a lot."
"I only worked with her about twice, but we just became friends and she still calls me and I check with her and see how she's doing," Johnson said. "She lost her husband and I lost my husband, so we had a bond. She's really good about calling me and asking how I'm doing. When my cancer came back, she was checking on me."
Johnson is a two-time breast cancer survivor who had her first diagnosis in 1995 and her second in 2011.
"I told Eleanor what I was told and that is that you're a survivor the day you're diagnosed. And you just keep that thought in your mind. I really feel strongly about that. If you can keep a positive attitude, you can deal with anything. You really can," Johnson said.
The Reach to Recovery program trains volunteers and provides patients with materials tailored to their unique experience, including informational booklets that cover topics from lymphedema to chemotherapy.
"Normally when we train, we say make one visit, make one phone call, and send a card, but speaking personally, whatever my patient needs, that's what I do," Johnson said. "I had one lady who couldn't fasten her prosthesis, and luckily I lived close by and I said, 'OK, I'll be right over,'" said Johnson.
"I think it's important to share and be encouraging. If you can share your experience with someone who is just beginning and they can see that you're positive it makes them think there is hope for them. It isn't the end," said Johnson.
"There are some very positive, happy things that happen to breast cancer survivors," said Johnson. "We have a pink ribbon tea, a nice luncheon, survivor day activities, lots of nice socialization if you want to get up and go meet some really positive people."