Support for breast cancer group grows
Becky Olson of Beaverton was trying to offer love and support to her friend, Sharon Henifin, who had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
She hugged Henifin, patted her arm and said, "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help you."
How could such a generous gesture be wrong?
Three years later, when Olson herself was diagnosed with the disease, she found out.
Now through Breast Friends, a nonprofit support group Olson and Henifin co-founded, they try to give friends and family members more effective ways to support women with the disease.
Breast Friends recently won a $30,000 grant from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Affiliate of Oregon and Southwest Washington. Olson has self-published a book that includes personal examples of the Breast Friends motto: "Helping women survive the trauma of breast cancer. . . one friend at a time."
In 2001, 3,372 women in Oregon were diagnosed with breast cancer, according to the Oregon State Cancer Registry; 523 women died of the disease that year.
The Komen grant will allow Breast Friends to expand its program into Washington and Southern Oregon. Started in August 2000, the group already has spread from the Beaverton/Tigard area to greater Portland to locations as distant as Wallowa County and Newport.
It has 34 active volunteers and 40 more trained and waiting to support newly diagnosed women who request help.
"Breast Friends is community-based, grassroots," said Chris McDonald, executive director of the Komen affiliate. Its emphasis on the patient's support network fits with Komen's new focus on "co-survivors" or people who go through the breast cancer experience alongside the diagnosed person, she said.
With help from a Komen Foundation grant last year, Breast Friends created and distributed 316 "First I Cry" packets to doctors and hospitals. They include a message of hope for newly diagnosed women, a handkerchief, a list of local support groups and a sealed envelope labeled "Give this to someone who cares."
Inside the envelope are 21 suggestions for how to help the person who has just been diagnosed. These and more are covered in the "41 Great Ideas" link at www.BreastFriends.com. In bold and repeated five times is the suggestion: Just call to chat.
A simple call can help alleviate the loneliness that comes "when you're home and the world is going on without you," Olson said.
Henifin, having gone through breast cancer herself, knew exactly what to do for Olson.
She brought over milkshakes. She e-mailed Olson's address to her co-workers and sent regular updates that reminded people to send messages of support.
It's also important for friends to offer specific practical help, Olson said.
Chemotherapy, not to mention depression, can sap a woman's energy and leave her unable to handle household chores. But women rarely take up friends' open-ended offers to help -- like the one Olson gave Henifin.
"We are really wonderful caregivers but we're lousy at asking for help,"
Henifin said. "I'm not going to say, 'Come on over and clean my house.'"
The friend or family member needs to be proactive, she said.
And assertive, Olson adds. To a friend who asks, 'Can I do some dishes for you,' "I would probably say, No, that's OK. I'm fine," Olson said.
In her book, she describes how a relative called one day and said, "Hey, Becky, I'm going to come over to your house in an hour. Is that OK? Do you have a CD player?" Once there, the woman said, "OK, I'm here to clean your house and I can't do it without my music," set down a stack of CDs and began to work.
Olson describes more of her experiences, as well as the formation of Breast Friends, in her book, "The Hat That Saved My Life." The title refers to a hat given by a friend to help her cope with the trauma of losing her hair after chemotherapy. Its slogan read: "No Hair Day."
"It was just this crazy, stupid little hat that totally changed my attitude about my bald head," Olson said.
So far, Olson has sold 350 books through the Breast Friends Web site and at her public-speaking engagements.
As president of Breast Friends, she travels around the country talking about her story and the organization's mission. This is one of the unexpected blessings that came out of her diagnosis.
"I have always wanted to be a public speaker," said Olson, who works full-time as a sales manager for Dex Media Inc. "I love getting up in front of people. The bigger the audience, the better.
"But you know, you need a subject."