Volunteering with Cancer Patients
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By Stephen Ornes

Survivors Reach Out

When cancer survivors lend a hand to other patients, everyone benefits

By Stephen Ornes

On a Tuesday afternoon last March, Grace Muñoz answered the phone at the New York City offices of SHARE, an organization that helps new cancer patients cope with their diagnoses. On the other end of the line, a 32-year-old woman in Wisconsin with metastatic breast cancer asked for help. Distraught after learning her doctor had found metastases in her hips, spine and bones, she wanted to talk with someone who had been through this before.

As a nine-year volunteer at SHARE, Muñoz, 70, knew what to do. “I wasTelephone illustration able to get her in touch with a young woman who also is metastatic … and [who could] share her own experiences as a young woman diagnosed with breast cancer,” she says.

Muñoz answers the phones each Tuesday, knowing what it’s like to be on the other end. In 1993, Muñoz was diagnosed with breast cancer. Before undergoing surgery, she picked up the phone and called SHARE for the first time. “I needed to hear a human being on the other side of the phone reassuring me that I had a chance to survive this very scary disease,” she says.

As survivors giving back to the cancer community, Muñoz and her SHARE colleagues represent the strong force of volunteerism. At cancer centers, nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups across the country, survivors give their time and energy as they help others in a variety of ways. (For a few examples, see “How to Volunteer.”)

Greta Greer, who runs the Cancer Survivors Network at the American Cancer Society (ACS), says survivors often tell her that “giving back through volunteering is exceptionally important because it’s a demonstration of gratitude, and gratitude has a healing effect on the spirit.” The network has about 120,000 survivors who support one another during their cancer experiences. The ACS as a whole has millions of volunteers working a range of jobs, including grief counseling and lobbying lawmakers, says Greer.

These programs help new patients obtain information, but they can also help survivors fight back against cancer. “Cancer is a never-ending deal. No matter how many years go by, you always have this monkey on your back,” Muñoz says. “For me, volunteering is a great part of the healing process.”

In Boston, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has about 350 volunteers, half of whom are survivors who talk with new cancer patients, says Deborah Hoffman Toffler, Dana-Farber’s director of volunteer services and the Shapiro Center for Patients and Families. But, she says, newly diagnosed cancer patients aren’t the only beneficiaries of survivors’ experiences.

(illustration: Bonnie Briant)

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