It was February 2018 when Barbara Leonard was diagnosed with breast cancer after a mammogram. By that March, she began a course of chemotherapy, traveling to Carroll Hospital from Middletown, Pennsylvania, for treatment.
It wasn’t easy.
“It was very intense, it made me very sick, I was only able to complete four sessions of it because it put me in the hospital twice,” Leonard said of her experience. “And that’s the very first time I met Carolyn.”
Carolyn Yost, of Westminster, was also treated for breast cancer at Carroll Hospital, but her diagnosis and treatment began in the summer of 2015. After chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and radiation, she got a call from her surgeon’s office, asking if she would like to become a mentor.
“I told her, ‘yeah’,” Yost said. “I believe in giving back, I would love to do that.”
And that’s how Leonard got connected with Yost, through the Carroll Hospital Breast Cancer Peer Support program. They initially exchanged a few phone calls, but when the chemo sent Leonard to the hospital, they met face to face.
“She was so gracious, she bought me magazines and sat and talked with me,” Leonard said. “She understood exactly what I was going through.”
The mentor program is celebrating its fifth anniversary, having been originated with patient focus groups the hospital held back in 2013, according to Dr. Dona Hobart, medical director of the hospital’s Center for Breast Health.
“It all makes sense to me, because I had cancer when I was younger, when I was in my 30s and early 40s, and there was a colleague of mine who had the same kind of cancer that I did and it was so helpful,” Hobart said. “We became kind of close because nobody else knew. You don’t know until you really know.”
It takes a certain knack to match people together for a supportive mentor-mentee relationship, and Marcia McMullin, manager of breast health services for Carroll and Northwest hospitals, has it.
“I usually match up by the kind of cancer, the kind of journey I know somebody is going to have,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to put somebody with someone who had chemo if they are not going to have it.”
To Yost, who has mentored one other woman before Leonard and was also mentored herself, McMullin has a perfect score when it comes to match-ups.
“Marcia is so good," she said. "Both the ladies she matched me up to I’ve stayed close friends with."
In the five years since its inception, the program has trained 50 mentors, according to McMullin’s record keeping, with 23 mentors currently active. They have mentored more than 100 mentees, with 42 people actively getting services.
That’s a record, and detailed record keeping, that recently led to academic recognition, according to McMullin.
“We just actually went to Dallas in May to do a poster presentation for the American Breast Cancer Society to present this program,” she said. “The reason it got picked is it is kind of homegrown. It’s run by volunteers — there’s no paid staff aside from me.”
And it’s a volunteerism that goes beyond providing a form of labor or emotional support to someone going through cancer for the first time. According to Yost, being a mentor has become one of the bright spots of her journey through cancer.
“Sometimes you have to dig real deep to find the good in something, especially when you are going through cancer. But I feel like I have gotten more out of this than I have given, I truly do,” she said. “It gave it a purpose to me, being able to mentor.”
And of course, mentorship, like care and friendship, is reciprocal, as Yost has recently discovered.
“My cancer came back this year, and so now I am going through treatment again,” she said.
“Now I am talking to her about her side effects and everything,” Leonard said. “And so now it’s time for a reverse mentorship.”
It will be good training for her stepping out on her own.
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“Once Carolyn is through with her treatment," Leonard said, “I am planning on calling Dr. Hobart’s office and signing up for the mentor program to help other women.”