“A Breast Cancer Conversation” meets monthly at St. Joseph's Church, led by Lois Wilkinson, of Townsend, a breast cancer survivor

A breast cancer support group in Middletown is a place for patients and survivors to share experiences and fun activities.

“A Breast Cancer Conversation” meets monthly at St. Joseph’s Church, led by Lois Wilkinson, director of education and survivorship for the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition in New Castle and Kent counties.

“Breast cancer survivorship is a wonderful group. It’s not something you ask for. No one wants to have cancer, but people enjoy meeting people in the same situation they’re in,” Wilkinson said.

She started the group about two years ago because she saw the need in the Middletown-Odessa-Townsend area.

“South of the canal, you kind of get forgotten about,” she said. “I felt it was time to do something in Middletown. The population has been growing by leaps and bounds.”

After growing up in Townsend, Wilkinson moved to Dover, but now she’s moved back to her family’s Townsend farm.

“I knew there was something missing here, so I decided to form the group, and the church was kind enough to offer free space,” she said.

The average attendance is five or six, with a high so far of 12.

Wilkinson said she wishes a support group like this existed when she was going through cancer treatment.

“I’m a 16-year survivor come November myself, and 16 years ago there was basically nothing,” she said. “The Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition did exist, but they didn’t have their survivorship program yet. They were just getting started.”

A year and a half after Wilkinson was diagnosed with breast cancer, the coalition hired her to open an office in Dover.

“We worked with employees and started our peer-mentor program, where we match patients one-on-one with survivors who have gone through similar surgery and treatment, and we try to match people of similar ages,” she said.

The mentor and the patient talk on the phone or meet, and the mentor can answer questions, tell what the experience was like and offer guidance and encouragement.

“People who mentored each other are now coming to this class in Middletown,” she said. “They like the idea of meeting face to face.”

The support group meetings often include guest speakers and activities like yoga and arts and crafts.

The September project was creating “vision boards.”

“A vision board is sort of like an arts and crafts bucket list,” said Wilkinson. “The idea was to show what you want to do in the next couple years – travel, family events, graduations, activities, goals – it was a chance to share all that.”

The participants found pictures and words in magazines that reflected their goals, cut them out and arranged them and pasted them on heavy poster board.

“You hang it on the wall and look at this board and it reminds you of the things on your bucket list you definitely want to do,” said Wilkinson. “You share your vision of the future.”

Wilkinson said the group members are advocates of breast cancer education.

“They go out into the community and tell people about the importance of early detection, to get screening, and they tell their friends and co-workers,” she said.

And new members are always welcome, she said.

“If you’re a five- or 10-year survivor, we’d love for you to attend,” Wilkinson said. “You can add something for the people who are newly diagnosed, offer added support and encouragement. Let them know, ‘I got through this and you will, too.’”

‘You’re not alone’

Lisa Prettyman of Middletown has been attending for about two years.

She was diagnosed when she was 53. She said her initial reaction was “disbelief – you know, that deer-in-the-headlights look. I was just floored.”

She had found what felt like a lump so she went for a mammogram, which led to an ultrasound test. The ultrasound detected something suspicious and then a biopsy confirmed it was cancer.

Two lumpectomies didn’t remove all the cancerous tissue, so she had to have a mastectomy of her left breast and removal of lymph nodes under her arm. Surgery was followed by chemotherapy and then radiation treatment.

“My chemo ended in May 2017. Then they gave me a break, and then in July I started radiation for 28 cycles every day, Monday through Friday,” she said. “My oncologist said I am in remission. I’ve been cancer free ever since the mastectomy.”

She’s now going through reconstructive surgeries.

Prettyman said she’s thankful for the support she received throughout the treatments, especially from someone who had a lot of experience in the field.

“A very good friend of mine is an oncology nurse. I reached out to her and told her what was going on. She kept encouraging me and pushing me. If I started to feel sorry for myself, she would keep pushing me. She’d say, ‘I treat women who are 80 and 90 years old, and if they can do it, you can, too.”

Prettyman credited the coalition and the Middletown support group with raising her spirits.

“The Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition with Lois and the whole organization have been a tremendous help,” Prettyman said. “There’s nothing like being able to talk to like-minded people. The biggest thing that helps is to find out you’re not alone.”

She said the meetings also gave her a different perspective.

“Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own problems and feel like nobody else has it worse,” she said. “Then you find out – oh my gosh – here’s a woman who survives breast cancer but now she’s on dialysis and awaiting a kidney transplant. When you see that, it reminds you not to feel so sorry for yourself.”

At the meetings

Prettyman said the support group meetings usually last about 90 minutes.

“We introduce ourselves, what our diagnosis is or where we are in treatments. We talk among ourselves and Lois has activities we do,” she said. “You’re more than welcome to bring a friend or a caregiver, and then they see what the group does, and it also makes them more aware about breast cancer and that being proactive is definitely the way to go.”

At the September meeting, Prettyman said the vision board was uplifting and made her examine her priorities.

“It took me a little while to think about what I really wanted to do – where you see yourself in the next few years, what you’d like to see happening in your life, once you’re done your treatments,” she said.

She looked through magazines to find pictures and words to put on her board.

“I picked things I like that I missed doing, and I put inspirational sayings on there. One of them was ‘Rewarding art of the mid-life makeover.’ I picked out pictures of the ocean and a pool because I haven’t been able to swim during my treatments and surgeries,” she said. “I found pictures of a garden and I love to garden. I thought about the meals I’d like to be preparing in my kitchen. I can’t wait to get back to doing all that.”

Prettyman has enjoyed the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition’s “Nurture with Nature” program with outdoor excursions like a boat tour of the C&D Canal, a hay ride and bonfire and making Christmas wreaths.

While many programs exist to help breast cancer patients and survivors, Prettyman said the process all starts with a little courage and humility.

“Just don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she said. “For a lot of us, we’re so used to doing things on our own and helping everyone else. We don’t want to bother anyone. Don’t let that happen. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

DELAWARE BREAST CANCER COALITION SUPPORT GROUPS

Middletown

“A Breast Cancer Conversation” is for people diagnosed with breast cancer who are in or have completed their treatment.

The free group provides encouragement, friendship, fellowship and support the second Wednesday of each month from 6-7:30 p.m. at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church Price Hall, 371 E. Main St., Middletown.

For information, call group leader Lois Wilkinson at 302-672-6435 or email lwilkinson@debreastcancer.org.

“If you can, please call or email ahead of time,” Wilkinson said. “It’s nice to know how many people are planning to attend, but last minute is fine, too, and you can bring a caregiver with you.”

Rehoboth Beach

Sussex County Survivors can socialize, learn a craft, volunteer or get educated about a health topic. Meetings are usually in the DBCC Sussex County office, 18977 Munchy Branch Road, unit 1, Rehoboth Beach.

The meetings are volunteer driven, so ideas and suggestions for topics or speakers are always welcome.

For more information, call Connie Holdridge at 302-644-6844 or email choldridge@debreastcancer.org.

SPECIAL BREAST CANCER AWARENESS SECTION ONLINE

For more stories about survivors and support, see the "Paint It All Pink" breast cancer awareness section at http://www.middletowntranscript.com/lifestyle/20181010/pink-pages-2018