“The instant the surgeon told me, I was ushered into another world, a world in which my former self was submerged in a new identity; cancer patient,” Emily Kofron writes.
The best way Kofron found to cope with breast cancer was to educate herself about both her illness and available treatments, she writes.One in every nine women was diagnosed with breast cancer last year in the United States. Women in the District faced the highest death rate from the disease.
Many cancer researchers attribute this rate to the District’s growing poverty level. The poor are less likely to have medical care, and so more likely to carry undetected cancers, researchers say.
The George Washington University Cancer Center offers treatment, education and support.
The Mammo Van
In 1996, the GW Cancer Center introduced the Mammo Van to D.C. The Mammo Van is the first mobile unit for breast cancer mammography.
“The Mammo Van travels around the District to offices and churches to screen women who are uninsured or underinsured,” said Rani Haigler, who works as Patient Navigator and outreach specialist at the GW Medical Center. For two years Haigler has worked with medical staff and patients from the van.
Haigler said the mobile unit has screened more than 2,000 women in the past two years – and identified four patients with breast cancer.
The Mammo Van is funded by a District grant and is staffed with doctors from the GW Medical Center.
“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain hearts of wisdom – Psalm 90:12,” reads a placard on the wall of Jane Lincoln’s office.
Lincoln, a social worker for the GW Cancer Center, helps diagnosed patients and their families deal with cancer. She has led support groups for nine years.
“Some people deal with their illness better than others,” Lincoln said.
The Cancer Center offers six support groups. All are free and tailored for patients in different stages, and with different types, of cancer. The Cancer Center hires social workers to lead the groups.
“When people have a medical illness, the best thing is to know of other people who have the same illness,” Lincoln said. “It normalizes what people are feeling.”
Lincoln said that when patients are first told of their disease, they often fall into a state of shock and neither hear nor understand information doctors give them.
During group sessions, social workers, nurses and doctors equip patients with the most accurate medical data on treatments. The staff hopes to cut down on misinformation.
Lincoln said people who attend weekly and monthly groups tend to handle their illness better than those who do not.
“The support groups help reduce the patient’s sense of isolation,” she said.
The GYN Cancer group, one of the best-attended support groups, brings together women with ovarian and cervical cancers. Between eight and 10 women a week discuss new medications, the effects of certain treatments and remission.
Breast cancer patients can choose from two separate groups. One support group is for newly-diagnosed patients, another is for breast cancer survivors.
“The newly-diagnosed patients have many medical questions and need advice in telling their families and friends, while the post-treatment people are primarily concerned with preventing a recurrence,” Lincoln said.
The Cancer Center also offers support groups for patients with prostate cancer and brain tumors.
Lincoln said more than 20 men attend the prostate cancer group. They gather for two hours – first they listen to a lecture, then talk.
Patients diagnosed with any cancer at any stage can attend a general support group. Lincoln said many terminal patients join this support group.
Look Good, Feel Better
The Cancer Center also works with the American Cancer Society to bring patients a “Look Good, Feel Better” program.
The program is a free national program offered to women undergoing cancer treatment. Sessions focus on teaching women to enhance their appearance.
Lincoln said the GW Cancer Center offers six two-hour seminars on make-up, hair and wig care throughout the year. Volunteer hair stylists and cosmetologists lead the sessions.
Post-treatment patients donate wigs, turbans and scarves to help other patients improve their appearance.
Even after treatment has sent cancer into remission, patients worry about recurrence. More than half of ovarian cancers recur, according to Lincoln.
Lincoln said that, at first, cancer patients are afraid they might hear horror stories about their illness from other people in the group, but most are pleased to find allies.