By Staff Writer
Let’s rewind to 2007. Apple introduced the first-generation iPhone. Readers awaited the release of the seventh and final Harry Potter novel. The American bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list. It was also the year that Linny found herself in her first breast cancer support group meeting.
“I just had this feeling like I didn’t belong there,” Linny said, because she was only in the first stage of her radiation, had only had a lumpectomy. Connecting with others didn’t feel simple or easy. In fact, it wasn’t until after a recurrence of breast cancer years later, and after her daughter had a preventive prophylactic mastectomy and told her about a young adult support group, that Linny realized she was still missing a sense of community with others who just understood.
It's a sentiment that her soon-to-be peer mentee, Lotus, would share.
Lotus found out she had breast cancer in 2019, just two months after the passing of her 106-year-old father.
“It was an ‘insult to injury’ kind of thing,” Lotus said.
As if her diagnosis and her father’s passing weren’t overwhelming enough, the world was turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lotus faced even more isolation as she navigated treatments and surgeries. In the previous year, she had undergone a different surgery — unrelated to cancer, but still serious — but that recovery process had not prepared her for what was in store with her cancer treatment and survivorship.
“Maybe it was the radiation, maybe it was the lymph node removal surgery that was really painful, but it wasn’t like anything I ever experienced before,” she said. “Plus, the emotions... I feel like I'm maimed in a way, and how do you say that to someone who has not experienced that?”
Friends in her circle would make well-intentioned but unhelpful comments, like that she looked fine or was doing great.
“I just felt like, don’t tell me how I feel because I feel like crap right now,” Lotus said. “You know, you're trying hard to be positive and keep moving forward, but when you're hurt and depleted physically, it’s difficult.”
For this reason, she started speaking to people less and less on the phone. “I didn't have the energy to keep talking, and then I wanted to make sure other people weren’t being bummed out by what I had to say. So, I would send out a monthly email to update people instead.”
Talking to someone who could understand? That was a welcome change. Both Linny and Lotus were told about Sylvester’s different support groups, including the peer mentor program, and both thought they’d give it a go. For Lotus, it seemed like an easy choice to select Linny as a peer mentor, as the pair shared similar life experiences: Both were single women with daughters.
Linny describes the mentorship program as a sisterhood, but also not unlike online dating.
“Are we a match? Are we not a match?” she mused. “But we had our first ‘date,’ and we clicked.”
In the beginning, “We talked about our cancer experience and some of the things we've gone through, the doctors we have known and loved or not loved, but we also talked about our lives,” Lotus said. “Linny has had much longer experience with having had breast cancer and going through different treatments. I have my own take on things, but it is really good to be able to have someone to talk to and vent… There are a lot of things we can talk about that other people just can't relate to.”
Having walked a similar path several years before, Linny was able to counsel Lotus on challenges she might not expect as a survivor — things she learned firsthand as the first in her friend group to get cancer.
“When you hear those words, ‘You have cancer,’ you find out who your friends are,” Linny said. “Most of my friends were right there with me, and I wasn’t disappointed. But you also find out that some people don’t want to deal with cancer.”
Some people, she said, surprise you from seemingly out of nowhere and are there for you.
“I wanted to let Lotus know that I've been there and wanted to help her, and I’d be a shoulder to cry on.”
It’s a unique partnership, forged in adversity and strengthened by shared experience. Being a few steps ahead of Lotus in her journey, Linny can relate to what Lotus is experiencing and help explain things. For example, Lotus is just beginning a medication that Linny has been taking for ten years and can give her some tips on side effects.
“If it doesn't work out with one mentor, try someone else,” Linny advised prospective members of the program. “For me, it was a wonderful resource. And I might not have all the answers for Lotus, but I have a whole network of people that I can access if I don't have the answer.”
“It has been nice,” Lotus said of her pairing with Linny. “It hasn't been a really long time that we've been acquainted, but it’s kind of like having a really good friend to go through this with.”
Lotus’ hope for the future is “to stay friends, now that we’ve connected. I'm sure there's a reason besides the cancer that we connected and that we get along so well. We each now have a new friend, and we’ve shared some difficult experiences but also have fun together. We're all living in such interesting times, and nobody knows what's next. I think the more friends and positive experiences we can have together as we go through this difficult time is for the better.”
In 2007, no one could have predicted all that would come — for Linny, Lotus, or the world. But finding a supportive community is important in every stage of life. Factor in the difficult reality that comes with a cancer diagnosis, and community can be what uplifts a survivor and helps reveal a path forward.