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CANSURMOUNT offers cancer victims knowing guides on their difficult path


When Jean Whitener saw a doctor about a sore area under her right arm last year and was told her problem was advanced ovarian cancer, she was scared to death.

One of her first calls was to the American Cancer Society to ask for help. Through its CANSURMOUNT program linking cancer patients with men and women who have survived the disease, the society introduced Ms. Whitener to Alexis "Lexi" Gatta, a five-year survivor of ovarian cancer.

While Ms. Whitener, the 52-year-old executive director of a group therapy practice in Columbia, valued the support she got from family and friends, she came to rely on frequent contacts with Ms. Gatta to guide her through periods of apprehension and fear.

"Lexi is very upbeat," Ms. Whitener said. "She's honest and open. She was able to prepare me for the chemotherapy, hair loss. I'd feel depressed -- I'd call Lexi," she said.

"A person who has been through it helps you put your experience in perspective because you blow it out of perspective."

Both women were workaholics.

"My focus in life before was extremely career-oriented," said Ms. Gatta, a vivacious woman in her mid-30s who learned she had advanced ovarian cancer five years ago after experiencing stomach bloating and urinary pain.

She had just been wooed away from Kansas City to head up a promotional advertising program at an Owings Mills firm when she learned about her cancer.

Now, sitting with Jean Whitener in a Catonsville diner, she looked back on her experience with cancer and said, tears welling up in her eyes, "In my life, it's the most positive experience I had. I was able to regroup with my family." (Her parents flew in from Georgia to stay with her during her treatments).

"I had a man by my side. Even though I was balding and skinny, he was there every step of the way. I had friends I didn't know I had."

Four years later, Ms. Gatta called the American Cancer Society to find out how she could help other cancer patients get through their illness and was enrolled in CANSURMOUNT.

So impressed was she by the help she received from Ms. Gatta, Ms. Whitener wants to volunteer for CANSURMOUNT too -- as a survivor counseling a new patient.

The volunteer program trains people who have finished treatment for at least one year and pairs them with newly diagnosed cancer patients or those experiencing a recurrence. The volunteer contacts the patient, then the two decide as they go along how much contact they will have by phone or in person, said Christine Crusan, volunteer coordinator for CANSURMOUNT.

CANSURMOUNT also trains family members of former cancer patients who want to volunteer as helpmates for family members of current cancer patients. The next six-week training period for volunteers will begin Tuesday.

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