TRAVERSE CITY — The only people who understand the emotions that follow a breast cancer diagnosis are those who’ve been through it themselves.
That’s the mantra of Munson Medical Center’s Navigator Program, which pairs women diagnosed with the disease with a companion who’s already won the fight.
Companions help guide patients and their families from diagnosis through treatment by offering resources and support. The navigators are all volunteers, and Munson Medical Center is looking for more.
Ann Reincke has been a navigator for six years. She’s about to celebrate eight years of being cancer-free after getting a bilateral mastectomy, an operation in which surgeons remove both breasts, in May 2006.
She was paired with a navigator through Munson after her diagnosis and decided to volunteer for the program after receiving a clean bill of health.
“I wanted to help someone, to support them like I had gotten support,” Reincke said. “You need support during that time. I wanted to give that to someone else.”
The program began about 15 years ago and typically consists of about 25 volunteers, program coordinator Blanche Heidt said. The goal is to reach patients early on so they have someone to support them when it comes time to make big decisions concerning surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
Peggy Nunneley also was paired with a navigator when she was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago. She had lost both her sisters to the disease, and she was scared. Her navigator eased her anxieties.
“They were both gone, so it was nice to have someone I could talk to and relate to as I was going through this,” she said. “If you haven’t gone through it, you don’t know what it’s like.”
Nunneley became a navigator after her treatment because she wanted to help people. She’s there for patients no matter how long it takes to reach recovery, and often the relationship continues outside the hospital doors. Many of the women become close friends.