When Cathy Hirsch was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 43, she was worried about going through chemo, and whether she would be able to care for her 2 children, then 8 and 10, and keep up the demands of her job. Now, over 6 years later, she’s cancer-free and working full-time to give back to the program she credits with giving her the “gift of hope.”
In 2003, Hirsch, a Baltimore, Maryland-based attorney and former journalist, was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. She had a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy, and breast reconstruction. When she first got her diagnosis, she says she felt alone. She knew 2 other women who had had breast cancer, but she says “their situations were so different from mine. One found her cancer early, before any treatment other than surgery was needed, and the other had not found her cancer until it was very advanced. I didn’t really feel like they would understand what I was going through.”
A nurse told her about the American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery program, which matches specially-trained breast cancer survivors with newly diagnosed breast cancer patients to provide emotional support and guidance. Whether in person or over the phone, Reach volunteers offer an opportunity for patients to talk about fears and concerns, and ask questions of someone who has been through breast cancer treatment before.
Finding hope through understanding
“Talking to a Reach to Recovery volunteer made such a difference. She and I had really similar backgrounds. She had 2 kids, too, and they were around the same age as mine when she went through treatment. She showed me that cancer didn’t have to take over my life. She was a runner, and she still ran while undergoing chemotherapy,” Hirsch says.
Hirsch says she coped with treatment by diving into her work and taking care of her family.
“I worked a lot while I was getting chemo. I’m the kind of person who copes best when I’m busy. It sounds like it was heroic, but it wasn’t — it was what I needed to do, and it was doable,” she says.
Helping others connect
In 2007, Hirsch decided to devote all of her time to helping cancer patients. She left her job with an appellate court in Maryland and founded Within Reach, a non-profit foundation that works with ACS to bring Reach to Recovery services to breast cancer patients in the Baltimore area.
“That contact was so important to me during my own cancer treatment. I can’t even describe how it changed my attitude. It made me want to give back,” Hirsch recalls.
Hirsch decided to stay with Reach to Recovery, rather than look into working for another program or organization.
“Reach to Recovery provides support and education that you can’t get anywhere else. There are a lot of great Web sites out there for breast cancer patients, but there’s nothing like that one-on-one connection with someone who has been through it,” Hirsch says. “Another thing that makes Reach to Recovery unique is that it offers patients a vast network of people to connect with. If there’s not a program in your area, many times you can find someone who is willing to connect over the phone.”
Through her work with Reach, Hirsch has met countless women who are going through experiences similar to hers. She says that the patients she frequently has the most prolonged contact with are women who have young children.
“For these women the hardest parts of the journey are concerns that their children’s lives will be disrupted and fear that they will not be there to watch their children grow up,” says Hirsch. “One patient in particular comes to mind lives in the Virgin Islands, where she is the single mother of a now 8-year old daughter. Her spirit amazed me. Despite everything she was going through her concern for her daughter always came first.”
The “gift of hope”
The Reach to Recovery program in Baltimore matches about 40-50 patients a month with Reach to Recovery volunteers. Hirsch’s own organization, Within Reach, also partners with a company to provide prepared meals to some of those women.
And volunteering is a family affair: Cathy Hirsch’s husband handles some of the business aspects of the foundation, and her sister-in-law is involved, as well.
“Volunteering is like offering a gift of hope,” says Hirsch. “I try to share the message that no matter what stage, breast cancer is not a death sentence, and that life can go on while going through treatment.”
Are you a breast cancer survivor who wants to make a difference in the lives of others affected by breast cancer? Call us toll-free at 1-800-227-2345 or call your local American Cancer Society office to learn about becoming a Reach to Recovery volunteer.