Women Supporting Women celebrates 25 years

As Cindy Feist points out, 25 years ago people didn’t talk about breast cancer.

Now, thanks to an abundance of awareness campaigns, we’re all socially aware and ready to help where we can.

In the Salisbury community, those who face a breast cancer diagnosis have a place to turn for support.

Women Supporting Women was started by three local women: Harriette Fine, Carol Prager, and Sue Revelle. The first meeting of Women Supporting Women was in July 1993 in the waiting room of the Radiation Department of Peninsula Regional Medical Center.

WSW now occupies offices in east Salisbury, but the spirit of deeply personal support is as strong as it was in 1993.

The group’s services include prosthetic breast fittings, wigs, educational tote bags, lift chair loaner program and community-related events to educate the public.

All services are free.

To learn more about Women Supporting Women’s past success and ambitious future, we interviewed Executive Director Cindy Feist.

Q. Your group, unbelievably, is in his 25th year now.

A. Let’s start from the beginning — 1993 is when we started. We actually started because a woman got diagnosed with breast cancer and didn’t know where to turn. She had questions — back then we didn’t talk about breast cancer.

Q. The whole idea of breast cancer awareness didn’t exist?

A. That’s right. So the woman went to Sue Revelle, who is an RN and who worked at PRMC at the time. The woman actually went to her and asked about about chemo and radiation. Plus she had questions like “Where do you turn?” “Are there support groups?”

So Sue Revelle went looking and found that there wasn’t anything available, and that’s where it all started.

Sue got together with two of her friends, Harriet Fine and Carol Prager, and decided to form Women Supporting Women.

Q. And here you are 25 years later and it really is a support group.

A. Well, it’s a lot more than a support group.

We have Lift Chair programs, so if somebody has a bilateral mastectomy, they can take it home and actually having a place to lay down in the evening, where they don’t have to get into a bed and try to get back up.

We have wigs and prosthesis caps. We have support groups. We have about five different locations and we’re in five different counties for people to come at all different locations and times.

Q. I have a friend who went through it 15 years ago and she has often said that it without Women Supporting Women she never would have made it.

A. We hear stories like that all the time. We do, we do.

People come into the door and they don’t know what to expect. When they walk in, we have pink furniture and everything’s bright and cheery, so we try to make it a whole lot easier on them.

We don’t need them to be upset about their bills and their finances and the radiation or things they’re going through. We want them to come in and feel comfortable with us, and be able to ask the questions that they need to ask.

Q. What is the process exactly? So I discover I have a lump, I go see Dr. David Walker or somebody, I get the X-ray — when and how do you all get involved?

A. We actually have a signature pink bag that’s given out, so if you go into a surgeon’s office after you’ve had your mammogram done, and it says that you have breast cancer, that the oncologist or radiologist has looked at it and said you have cancer, the doctor will let you know that.

At that point in time at their offices they will give out our pink bag.

In those pink bags is a letter that allows us to contact those women who have been handed the pink bag.

In it are two different books. One is a book for them that goes through their entire diagnosis (and explains things), whether it’s sex after chemotherapy, whether it’s having a lumpectomy-mastectomy, what’s going to happen with chemotherapy, radiation — it explains it all step by step.

We’ve had some people who can’t even look at the bag after they’ve been diagnosed. It takes a while. And then there are others who open it up read it cover-to-cover.

On top of that, there is also a bag in there for the caregiver — whether that be a spouse or a sibling — to help them figure out what the survivor is going to be going through.

Q. The hospital has the Peninsula Breast Center on Snow Hill Road. That was a tremendous step forward for the community.

A. Oh, absolutely. We have our pink bags at that location as well.

Q. Are you still achieving your goals or do those things sort of evolve?

A. I think we’re achieving them. The mission of the organization was to provide awareness education and support to anybody who’s been affected by breast cancer — and that means men or women, because nowadays we’re also finding there are men that have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Yes, you know that’s quite an issue.

Q. What’s it all do to a woman’s self-esteem?

A. Think about it two ways: one, you’re looking at possibly having your breasts taken off and going through chemo.

Then you’re taking away your hair, so everything about what you look like that makes you feminine is going away.

That’s why we’re there with the wigs and figuring out your makeup — and how to make you feel better all over again.

Q. Support networks are so important within the family. Is there some way to get to the husbands, so they can be the right kind of support network for their wives?

A. We actually have a lot of the husbands who come in to help pick out the wigs for the women. At times it gets funny because we ask them: “You know, your wife was originally brown-haired, but we have some red wigs in here if you want to change it up a little bit.”

Conversation will start from there, as to what he wants down the road, so it can be light — and, yes, it doesn’t have to all be doom and gloom. That’s not why we’re here.

Q. Do you have a favorite story of your own?

A. I have a lot of experiences where it’s a miracle that they’ve made it through. And then these women even come back and they help us and and volunteer.

But my personal experience, I had a grandmother who had breast cancer, my sister had a scare with breast cancer — and I don’t know whether it’s fortunate or unfortunate that after I took this position, a year later I had a scare with it.

My first thought was: “Am I supposed to go through this journey so that I can show others what it’s about?”

And in that perspective, I could turn to a survivor and say “I need help as the director of this organization — you made it through and you need to show me how to do that.”

So in my head, when I was on the verge of being diagnosed — which, thank God, I was not — I knew I could turn to my survivors.

What other nonprofit can say: I can turn around to my clientele and say ‘I need your help.’

Q. Talk about your funding and fundraising.

A. All the funds that come in, whether it be through grants, events or major sponsors and individual contributions — what’s major for us is the individual contributions — stays 100 percent local.

I want to make sure that everybody is aware, when they see breast cancer awareness in October and that pink ribbon comes out — whether it’s our nonprofit or any other nonprofit that you’re going to give to — make sure that you check in to the background because they may say that the money stays local, but your that’s not a guarantee.

With Women Supporting Women, all the money that we bring in stays right here locally.

We go from beach to bay, the bottom of Delaware to the top of Virginia.

Actually, 16 percent of what we bring in is for overhead — everything else goes back out into the community. It’s a bare bones operation.

Q. You have an event coming up?

A. We have a lot of events coming up, with it being the 25th anniversary. October, of course, is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. On Nov. 2, we’re going to be doing our 25th anniversary gala — that will be held out at the Hyatt in Cambridge.

We’ve got two different kinds of fundraisers going — a silent auction that will be some smaller items, maybe like some fishing charters and such, and then we have a company that will be doing at least eight trips in the country and out of the country that are going to be available.

Q. Cindy, everyone in the community knows you and they know Sue Revelle, but there’s some changes going on with Sue’s retirement.

A. Yes, I came into the position two years ago as the executive director and at that point in time Sue continued on as the mentoring coordinator. As of June 1, Sue decided that she is completely retiring from Women Supporting Women and we wish her well.

She’s awesome, she’s funny, she needs some more time for herself — which is a great thing, but she is going to be coming in every now and again to volunteer.

We do need her for some of our events, but now I have some new staff, as you said. Sarah Edsel is coming in as my mentoring coordinator and taking that piece as well.

Q. What’s the future for the organization?

A. We are still all about the awareness education and support.

You’d be surprised when we go out to health fairs that people still don’t understand that Women Supporting Women is there to help them, and that we’re the only local grassroots organization in town.

We’re reaching out to different communities and we’re trying to do what’s called “healing with the arts” — so it is yoga and mosaics and painting poetry, journaling, different things to actually let them become creative and get out their concerns. It is important to expand the mind.

This spring we did a Healthiest You conference, which is what I want to focus on in the next years to come. We don’t want to just catch people when they’ve been diagnosed and help them. We still want to help them through their journey, but what we want to do is get them healthier so that this disease — if we can help it all — isn’t as major as what it is now.

One in eight are being diagnosed.

Q. So you’ll preach prevention too?

A. Absolutely. Bridging mammograms, we’re talking about eating right, trying to eat clean foods and how to cook more than going out to the restaurants or fast-food restaurants.

Some people are predisposed to breast cancer, but there are others who are diagnosed and have had no sign of breast cancer in the family.

The other thing too is that we’re being told when you get your mammograms you don’t need to have them until you’re 50. Unfortunately, we have seen women as young as 22 coming in who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

If you don’t do a monthly check on yourself – men included – you’re going to miss that and get a diagnosis. You need to understand your own body and to be aware of that before you even have a mammogram.

 

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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