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Life after cancer

Laura Hiatt, left photo, and Patty Piccinino, right photo, have found friendship, support and helpful information through the Stronger Together breast cancer support group at Augusta Health.

Group brings survivors together to talk, heal

In August of 2016, Patty Piccinino of Fishersville finished her breast cancer treatment at Augusta Health. In September of 2016, she finally began to process what she’d been through.

“When you’re going through treatment, there is so much going on,” explains Piccinino. “You’re busy and things are planned and organized.  You don’t really have time to process or know how to process it. Then it’s abruptly over and you start to wonder, ‘What have I just been through?’”

For Piccinino, she found support, friendship and some answers through Stronger Together, the breast cancer support group that meets weekly at Augusta Health. The group was small, and most members had just finished treatment. “Breast cancer is not just physical, it’s very emotional,” says Piccinino. “So it was nice to be with women who understood. Because honestly, even though people say they understand, you can’t fully understand unless you’ve been through the experience. And that’s what we can provide for each other.”

Donna Berdeaux, BSN, RN, the breast cancer navigator at Augusta Health, coordinates the support group meetings.  She agrees that the connection the group provides is important. “It’s beneficial to be able to sit down with others to talk about what you’re going through, what you have gone through, and realize you’re not the only one going through this experience,” says Berdeaux. “Everyone’s journey is different, but others can provide advice or guidance. Someone who really understands can say, ‘This is what helped me.’”

Berdeaux says a unique camaraderie develops, and it’s like a family, but different. Most of the members don’t want to burden their families, so the group is there to help.

Piccinino explains, “As the mom, the wife, the sister or the daughter — you know your family is scared for you and you want to reassure them. Usually, you end up putting on the ‘brave face’ and being the one who tells everyone else that everything is going to be OK.”

Because of this added layer of responsibility for people recovering from breast cancer, it helps to connect with a group of women — all very diverse personalities in different stages of treatment — who share the common experience of coping with breast cancer.

Laura Hiatt, another of the “original” members of the group, echoes these thoughts. “While I was undergoing cancer treatment, I knew I wanted to belong to a support group,” she recalls. “I knew that once the treatment was completed, I’d still want connection to women with similar experiences. Many members remark that they felt very alone after treatment, and they missed coming to Augusta Health every day, as bizarre as that sounds!”

“I have formed two very close friendships with women I met in the group,” she adds. “If something positive has come from the cancer experience, it is getting to meet these wonderful people, who I think will be lifelong friends. It’s an invaluable supportive resource and I couldn’t imagine not attending.”

Piccinino agrees. “It started as a way to process and be with those who could understand, but now it’s friendship,” she says.  “It’s been a good thing, and I want to be there to support the new members. Sometimes you just need someone to listen.”

While conversations can run to the deep and emotional, Berdeaux is focused on positive thinking because she believes a positive mind-set is important to healing. She provides members with a gratitude journal for their personal use and ends each meeting with members reading positive messages. They celebrate birthdays. They talk about lots of things — not just cancer. Sometimes everything but cancer.

They create a unique bond that has been forged through a common experience and a determination to be Stronger Together.

Stronger Together meets every Thursday from 3–4:30 p.m. in the Conference Room in the Augusta Health Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders. It is open to all breast cancer patients and survivors; members do not have to be patients at Augusta Health. For more information, contact Donna Berdeaux, BSN, RN, at dberdeaux@augustahealth.com or (540) 332-5072.