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When Elsa Rodriguez was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago, she received tremendous support from caring family and friends. At the time, she was teaching math at a high school in Pennsylvania. After she retired and moved to Millsboro, she learned about the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition (DBCC) from a friend at church. Rodriguez realized she could make a positive impact in the lives of other women who had been diagnosed, especially since she is bilingual. She soon began training to become a peer mentor with DBCC. Now, Connie Holdridge, program manager of education and survivorship at DBCC, connects Rodriguez with Spanish-speaking women who have been recently diagnosed.

“I tell them that I am a survivor and that I can answer their questions,” she says. “I want to be a mentor and walk with them through this difficult time in their lives.” Many times, Rodriguez will meet a woman she is mentoring at the doctor’s office so she can interpret. Mentors do not offer medical advice. They provide emotional support. The fact that mentors are healthy and well years after treatment can be an inspiration in itself. “To talk to a woman who is healthy after 10 years is very reassuring,” Rodriguez says. “It also is reassuring to talk with someone who understands their language and culture.” Joanne Hutchison, an oncology nurse navigator at Bayhealth Medical Center, works closely with DBCC in connecting patients with resources. “The Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition has multiple resources that they can use to assist patients,” she says. “It’s very rewarding to see how patients respond. When they have a peer mentor, they feel so much more comfortable talking about their illness.”

Sandra Arnell of Dover, who completed treatment in 2006, started mentoring in 2008. Since then, she has mentored more than a dozen women. “We cry together, laugh together,” she says. “Women I met through a support group helped me so much when I went through my breast cancer journey that I wanted to help others, too.” Patients and mentors typically are matched by age and the stage and type of cancer they have. Arnell says that common ground provides a foundation for an open and honest dialogue. “A lot of times they don’t know what to tell their families,” she says. “Women have a hard time talking to their husbands about it. I tell them that they can still look pretty.” On occasion, mentors lend a hand by providing a ride to a medical appointment. For patients who do not have close friends or relatives, they offer compassionate support. Arnell went to the hospital to visit a woman who didn’t have family nearby. After the woman was released, she took her to lunch once a month and sent cards. “I truly understood what she was going through,” she says. “And I wanted to let her know that we care.”

Elsa Rodriguez and Sandra Arnell

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