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Support groups bolster cancer patients through ordeals

Highlands Today correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 11, 2013 at 08:29 PM
SEBRING -

When a group of breast cancer survivors came together in a second-story conference room at Florida Hospital Heartland Medical Center to share feelings of accomplishments, limitations, hopes and fears, they found they had common concerns. In an outpouring of tears and laughter the women shared their very personal stories.

The support group meets the first Tuesday of the month, said Florida Hospital's Breast Patient Navigator Laurie Jones, who leads the group. In her position, Jones works with a board of surgeons, pathologist, radiologist, and primary-care physicians to advise patients on their care and coordinate the services they need.

Seventeen years ago, Jones lost her sister to breast cancer after a decade long battle with the disease. "That is why I got into nursing," she said.

Support groups are not therapy. People meet to learn coping skills, reduce anxiety, provide each other with emotional support and improve the quality of their lives. Groups can be led by a group member, a survivor, a nurse, or a trained professional.

"We belong to a sorority that none of us wanted to join," said Florida Hospital's Marketing Director Cathy Albritton, who had a lumpectomy four years ago. After she was diagnosed, several people in Highlands County reached out to her. She said, "We all became a support group, friends and associates."

A strong advocate for being well-informed and having regular screenings, Albritton said from now through December, Florida Hospital Heartland Medical Center, Seascape Imaging, and the Florida Hospital Breast Care Center will be offering reduced price $99 digital screening mammograms. For information or to schedule a mammogram, call 402-3627. Women under 40 years of age will need a doctor's prescription.

"The most important thing is to get a mammogram. It is worth the two minutes of discomfort," said Corrine Volpe, a former Palm Beach County hospice social worker who had a double mastectomy in November 2010. She said, "I didn't think I needed (a mammogram) because no one in my family had ever had cancer. I had stage-three cancer by the time it was detected."

Now in her 50s and unable to work, Volpe moved to Highlands County this past year. She suffers with pain, the constant swelling of lymphedema and feels tired. "I deal with the constant fear every day that it is coming back."

"I've had so many surgeries: stage-four in my colon, my breast, lungs, and lymph nodes," said Bonnie Murphy, a former JC Penney customer service representative. Remarkably upbeat and healthy looking, she said her cancer was discovered after a routine insurance physical.

With cancer in one breast, she elected to have both removed. As the colon cancer spread to her lungs, she began having other health problems. In March, she had 90 screws put in her body after chemotherapy weakened her muscles, leaving her with a hernia. "I told the doctor I guess now I'm a screw up," she joked to lighten the situation.

The support of family, church, friends and the people at Florida Hospital's breast cancer support group "made a world of difference," said Murphy. She said, "Never give up, believe in yourself."

"The greatest weapon in the fight again breast cancer is you," said Carol Byrum, an endoscopy technician at the hospital who had her lumpectomy 14 months ago after being diagnosed with a triple negative invasive ductal carcinoma.

"If people could just realize how important it is to talk about it," said Byrum, who still fights the fear that the disease will return. When 12 of her co-workers shaved their heads and 33 showed up to bolster her spirits at a dinner at Don Jose, she felt overwhelmed by their show of support.

Albritton said that an online support group that was very helpful for her was through the National Breast Cancer Foundation Inc. Visit MyNBCF at www.community.NationalBreastCancer.org.

The American Cancer Society offers free support services, information, and a support group locator at www.cancer.org/Treatment/SupportProgramsServices. You can also call its 24-hour help line at (800) 227-2345.

The First Baptist Church in Sebring also hosts a breast cancer survivor group every Monday evening, except holidays, at 6:30 p.m. Contact Dolores Champion at 386-2942 for more information.

The Breast Cancer Awareness support group at Florida Hospital Heartland Medical Center, located at 4200 Sun 'n Lake Blvd., Sebring, meets the first Tuesday of the month in Conference Room 2 at 5 p.m.

For more information, contact Breast Patient Navigator Laurie Jones at 402-7575.

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