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Beating breast cancer: Help line & mentorship program reaches out to the military community

Oct. 17, 2013 - 11:12AM   |  
Retired Marine Corps Reserve Maj. Mike Yeck was deployed to Iraq when his wife, Dixie, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The group After Breast Cancer Diagnosis connected her with three mentors who helped guide her through the ordeal.
Retired Marine Corps Reserve Maj. Mike Yeck was deployed to Iraq when his wife, Dixie, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The group After Breast Cancer Diagnosis connected her with three mentors who helped guide her through the ordeal. (Courtesy of Dixie Yeck)
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The Walter Reed After Breast Cancer Diagnosis training is a pilot program. If the training is well received, the group will do it in other military communities. Those interested in the training can call the helpline toll-free at 800-977-4121. Questions also can be submitted online to www.abcdbreastcancersupport.org, which offers more information. Other training sessions are scheduled for Milwaukee, Nov. 2; Chicago, Nov. 9; and San Antonio, Dec. 14.
Helpline hours are 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Central time, Monday through Friday; and 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Central time Saturdays. ABCD plans to start 24-hour operations in December, Finn said.

When Dixie Yeck was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, her Marine reservist husband, Mike, was deployed to Iraq. They were living in Racine, Wis., with two small children, ages 2 and 3.

They weren’t near a military installation, and her family was in Illinois.

“When I was first diagnosed, I thought I was going to die,” said Yeck, who was in her late 30s at the time. “You’re terrified after a doctor tells you that you have cancer. And generally, things move so fast. You’re having to make life-changing decisions. You’re emotionally drained and may not feel you’re able to get on the Internet and do research and make decisions. You’re in shock.”

With her husband unable to come home, Yeck knew she needed help.

Then she remembered meeting Melodie Wilson, a founder of a nonprofit network that matches people facing breast cancer with mentors who are breast cancer survivors. It’s called After Breast Cancer Diagnosis, or ABCD.

Yeck called the free ABCD help line for information and was matched with three mentors who helped her with different aspects of her situation. One also had young children when she was diagnosed and could help Yeck anticipate and plan for things related to her children’s needs. Another helped with questions about surgery and reconstructive surgery, and the third answered questions about chemotherapy, such as whether to buy a wig before her hair fell out.

ABCD is expanding its reach into the military community, realizing how important such a resource can be to those affected by moves, deployments and other aspects of the military lifestyle that often take people away from their core support systems.

The group will offer training at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 26 to familiarize patients with this peer-to-peer breast cancer support network and also to recruit breast cancer survivors from the military community who would be willing to undergo training as mentors, said Ginny Finn, executive director of ABCD.

The objective is to be able to match up patients with mentors who have gone through a similar experience, Finn said, such as getting a diagnosis during a deployment.

“Walter Reed takes survivorship care very seriously,” Finn said, noting that this is just one element in the medical center’s programs to help patients deal with other issues related to cancer treatment, such as stress, exercise and nutrition.

In general, the medical community is moving “from treating a disease to treating a person,” Finn said.

The ABCD mentors are not medical professionals and don’t provide medical support, although they can help answer some questions, such as explaining a term in a medical report. “We do encourage them to bring issues back to their doctor,” Finn said.

The volunteers provide emotional support and connections to resources. The program is not designed to take the place of family and friends, said Finn, but to complement them. It’s confidential and available when patients want and need it, she added.

Patients “can let their hair down and be scared,” Finn said. “They can scream and be angry.”

Sometimes a patient can unleash feelings on a mentor that they don’t want to say to a family member. Mentors understand and are trained to deal with these feelings.

Callers may just have questions for the help line. But if they want a mentor, they are generally matched with someone within 24 business hours after they initially call the help line. In the meantime, they can speak with a help line volunteer if needed, she said.

ABCD matches callers with a mentor based on the caller’s priorities. “We can prioritize reflecting what’s important to the caller,” Finn said. “That’s important because when you’re diagnosed with cancer, so much is taken out of your control. This is something you can control.”

As in Dixie Yeck’s case, more than one mentor may come onboard.

Yeck’s immediate family members traveled when they could to help her. But on a day-to-day basis, “I was on my own, pretty much,” she said. “I think that’s why I leaned on the mentors so much.”

Mentors are trained in what they can and can’t do; maintaining confidentiality; and listening with an empathetic ear.

Yeck said she has kept in touch with her mentors.

“It’s different with every relationship,” she said. “We got along well, but if for some reason you don’t get along, they will switch you.”

In fact, she believes so much in the program that she is now a mentor to others.

ABCD is also beefing up its program to provide mentors to family members of those diagnosed with breast cancer. Currently, of the more than 400 trained active mentors, about 10 percent are family members, Finn said.

This kind of support for the family is important, said Mike Yeck, who retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a major in 2008. He recalls learning about Dixie’s cancer diagnosis in an email — the only reliable means of communication they had while he was in Iraq. He was an AV-8B Harrier pilot while on active duty, but was the officer in charge of an unmanned aircraft system detachment at Al Asad Air Base when his wife was diagnosed.

“I silently and quietly fell apart,” he said. “I had been working 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week for the past eight months. Nothing I’d been a part of, no matter how horrible, compared to the devastation I felt. But I wasn’t able to allow any of it to show. The work my Marines and contractors were doing was keeping other Marines and service members alive and the enemy on the run.

“I was torn between finishing the work I was involved with and keeping my Marines safe and racing home to take care of my family. Most would think there was no decision to be made, but spending time in combat changes the way you think forever.”

He said he has urged ABCD to also create a caregiver support network. “I hope I’m able to become a key member of a support network for spouses,” he said.

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