Karla, CHN Support Volunteer/ Stomach Cancer Survivor
Receiving news of a cancer diagnosis can bring about a myriad of mixed emotions: fear of being sick and hope that all will be fine in the end; despair about the changes to come and acceptance of that reality; concern for loved ones’ well-being and gratitude in receiving their love and support; confusion over navigating medical as well as emotional needs and trust in the expertise of those professionals with whom you place your care. During a Cancer Hope Network support visit, volunteers strive to validate all the emotions brought on by the patient’s cancer experience while guiding each individual toward the positive ones. A non-judgmental atmosphere of empathy, honesty and, hopefully, trust is created whereby the patient would feel totally comfortable expressing whatever concerns exist.
Trust became the foundation upon which Kendra’s cancer journey began. She had been losing weight for about a year without trying and welcomed the ease of that. Eventually, she became concerned when this continued beyond what she thought was enough. When other symptoms arose, Kendra made an appointment to see a gastroenterologist, a close friend. Test results confirmed a diagnosis of a rare form of stomach cancer called Linitis Plastica. As daunting as this difficult news would be for anyone to hear, Kendra and her husband had the “blessing” of it coming from their dear friend in a very supportive environment. She trusted his judgment totally and was comforted when he quickly set up appointments for her to see specialists in the field. Kendra would receive a rigorous protocol including chemotherapy and radiation followed by the surgical removal of her entire stomach and placement of a feeding tube. Treatment would then conclude with another nine sessions of chemotherapy. Together with the wonderful support Kendra received from her husband and medical team, she was happy to move forward at such a fast pace.
With her treatment plan in place, Kendra realized now “that I had to figure out how to help myself”. Knowing that her cancer was rare and the likelihood of finding a volunteer match based on that would be improbable, Kendra thought that if she could, at the least, speak with someone who had the same treatment plan, she could prepare herself for its side effects. A brief search on the internet led Kendra to the Getting Matched page on the Cancer Hope Network website. She was contacted almost immediately and within moments, Kendra learned that not only could a volunteer provide her the emotional support she needed concerning her treatment, this volunteer was also a three year survivor of Linitis Plastica stomach cancer!
Karla’s desire “to give back”, to connect with others whose shoes she has worn, was what led her to become a support volunteer for Cancer Hope Network last year. As with Kendra, Karla’s cancer journey was founded in trust. She trusted her “gut” feeling. Karla knew something was wrong when she had been experiencing various digestive symptoms for years and the medications prescribed did not seem to work. With help from her husband, Karla persisted in search of an answer until a biopsy revealed she had Linitis Plastica stomach cancer. Rather than fear, the emotion she felt was confusion about what to do next. It did not take long for Karla to move forward.
While the family cried as she and her husband and their three children talked about what was happening, Karla recalls telling them, “This hurts now, but we’re going to go through the steps to fix this. I have to beat this!” Their response was to remind her that they were there to help and support her.
With her family’s support, she accepted what she was facing, trusted her instincts and approached it all with a very positive attitude. With this outlook, together with her family “holding her up”, Karla braved the difficulty of her treatment, having to be hospitalized twice. Throughout it all, she remained honest about the reality of her situation and her unwavering belief in its positive outcome.
Through her own cancer experience, Karla realized that having even the best support from loved ones could never equal the kind of support a cancer survivor can offer. Karla wanted to give others what she wanted when she was going through her experience. She wanted to help prepare those diagnosed with stomach cancer for the physical and emotional side effects. Karla soon learned of a volunteer opportunity, through Cancer Hope Network, where she could provide peer support. With a giving heart and a belief in the honesty and acceptance of one’s situation, Karla has been a model of hope and cheerleader to all those she has helped.
Karla felt that the best way to support Kendra throughout her treatment was to be honest and not sugar coat its side effects. They discussed what was normal and what was not. They talked at length about major changes to their body’s functioning that most people take for granted, such as sleeping and eating patterns. This gave Kendra an invaluable reference point on which to gauge her treatment experience. Karla prepared Kendra every step of the way by conveying every harsh reality in an “extremely supportive and caring manner”. With each conversation, Karla armed Kendra with the emotional tools she needed to face her cancer challenge with positivity, that is, “realistic positivity”. Karla said, “I gave her what I felt she needed from me”. Kendra has felt completely comfortable opening up to Karla because “she always validates my feelings” first, and then points me in a positive direction. Vulnerability was replaced with strength, confusion was replaced with clarity, fear was replaced with humor and insecurity was replaced with trust. Kendra and Karla have grown to trust each other so completely that there is nothing they will not share. Their immediate and strong connection became so apparent to Kendra’s husband that Karla was one of the first persons he called following his wife’s surgery.
When Karla continued to check in with Kendra throughout her nine month treatment protocol, Kendra realized they had become friends. Their unique friendship was born from the unlikely sharing of a rare cancer diagnosis, Karla’s desire to serve others and Kendra’s need to help herself. Cancer Hope Network’s support volunteers strive to make a positive difference in the lives of cancer patients and their families with every conversation they have. Oftentimes, the support given during even one visit is enough to make that “difference”. With twenty-three conversations to date, Karla has shown her high level of commitment to Kendra and to Cancer Hope Network. What began as a need to talk, has developed into a want. It is rare for a support relationship to evolve into friendship. When this occurs, something quite special has taken place. Simply and beautifully stated, Kendra expressed her gratitude to Karla for sharing her heart by saying, “She was a lifesaver”. Now, that’s making a difference.