A breast cancer survivor shares her experiences with the BRCA gene.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mentoring 101

I have become a mentor for two women I know, who were recently diagnosed with breast cancer. My heart broke each time I received the news of their diagnosis, and all I could think of was wanting to alleviate their fear and hurt. I've been there.

Both are outstanding women, who live remarkable lives. They have interesting jobs and are terrific moms. I hate this for them.

I'm also extremely touched they turned to me for help, comfort, advice. With this topic, it's impossible to avoid the personal and vulnerable in discussions. You get down to brass tacks and dirty details.

This gut-level honesty establishes a tight-knit bond quickly and powerfully. Because we're talking life and death here. (Okay, so we're also talking beauty tips...)

We discuss our mortality. We share our frustration about our predicament: what did I do to get this?...why won't the nurse call me back?...what if treatment fails? We talk about solutions to combat the side-effects of chemo and dealing with well-meaning people who do the wrong thing. Most of all, we commiserate.

I feel the weight of responsibility in not wanting to let them down. Being a mentor, you want to make sure you are doing everything you can.

But, this is where I need to be reminded of my own advice. When a friend asked what I found most helpful while undergoing cancer treatment, I told her it was every single thing people did to let me know they cared, that I mattered and that I wasn't ALONE. Feeling like everyone is living full, glorious lives while you are on the sidelines fighting a disease and missing out on everything. This is a daily struggle. When people take part in your ordeal, you are reminded that you're not on the outside...others are with you every step of the way.

I think of Jan Bilthouse, in particular. Jan, who is owner of The Bilthouse apparel boutique in Buckhead, is a breast cancer survivor and extremely involved in fundraising and mentoring for breast cancer. When I heard I carried the BRCA gene--which meant a double mastectomy--I immediately thought of Jan, who had already dealt with this. I left a message with an employee at her shop the day before Thanksgiving, and explained the reason for my call. It seemed like just a few minutes later, my phone rang. It was Jan, driving her family on the way out of town for the holiday. She responded to my call for help right then and there. It was exactly what I needed.

I hope the women I'm reaching out to will be on "the other side" of treatment soon, with a new perspective and appreciation for their lives and the knowledge that they do, in fact, matter.

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