It was something of a family reunion when cancer survivors met on a recent Saturday at the 92nd Street Y—if a family can consist of 100 women from just about every generation and culture. What they had in common was Woman to Woman, a peer-to-peer program founded at Mount Sinai by Valerie Goldfein, an ovarian cancer survivor, that provides emotional support, mentoring, and financial aid to women in treatment for gynecologic cancer.
The twice-yearly reunions bring together women who have received support from the program, plus their family and friends, for a morning of education on how to cope with gynecologic cancer and an opportunity to exchange ideas and information. These women share the bond of a similar diagnosis as well as the common experience of having received support from a Woman to Woman survivor mentor. “What is special is being with a group of women who can understand and relate on a deeper level,” says one mentor, Tricia Clarke.
Woman to Woman, founded in 2003, is a program of the Mount Sinai Division of Gynecologic Oncology and the Mount Sinai Department of Social Work. Women diagnosed with gynecologic cancer are screened by a social worker to determine their interest in meeting with a survivor mentor. The 20 professionally trained volunteers meet women at the time of diagnosis, bringing “comfort kits” with items they found useful during their own treatments, like granola bars, slippers, hand lotion, and hard candy, plus information on Woman to Woman. “We never push,” one volunteer says. But if the patient expresses interest, a mentor will keep in touch throughout treatment, sitting with her during chemotherapy and visiting during hospital stays. The volunteers, who follow up via telephone and email, are prepared to answer questions big and small: How much should you tell your friends and family? What do you do when your eyebrows fall out? How do you handle nausea? Most important, volunteers are trained to listen to women’s stories, fears, and concerns and share their personal experiences, if appropriate.
At the recent 10th reunion, on Saturday, September 24, three “generations” of Woman to Woman volunteer mentors reunited. Robin Findling, a
survivor of ovarian cancer, joined the Woman to Woman team in 2005. She mentored Myrtice Wooten, then an employee of The Mount Sinai Hospital, throughout her treatment for endometrial cancer. Ms. Wooten was so inspired by her relationship with Ms. Findling that a year after her treatment ended, she, too, trained to become a survivor volunteer. She then mentored Tricia Clarke, who was also diagnosed with endometrial cancer. Ms. Clarke also wanted to be able to help women the way Ms. Wooten had helped her. “She has such a welcoming way. I am still learning from her,” says Ms. Clarke, who now mentors newly diagnosed women. The bond between these three generations of Woman to Woman mentors is very strong. “If you looked at us, you’d say, ‘They don’t fit,’ but we have become a great group. We all really love each other,” Ms. Findling says. “We’re like sisters,” says Ms. Wooten.
The September reunion also featured presentations from Michael Port, a well-known author and speaker; a nutritionist; Bob Baker, MD, a gastroenterologist who is a ventriloquist; and music from the band N.E.D., composed of gynecologic oncologists (including Nimesh Nagarsheth, MD, Associate Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Science, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai).
To date, more than 1,100 women have been supported by Woman to Woman, a mission seen as mutually rewarding. “I know that just by entering a current patient’s room and telling her I am a longtime survivor it can provide her with hope and inspiration,” Myrtice Wooten says. “When I can put a smile on a patient’s face and let them look at me—headstrong and not giving up—that is a good feeling.”