VCSN Board member Theresa Lever had a delightful interview with Eileen Foster of Williamstown, Vermont.
What is your experience with cancer?
I was diagnosed in June 2010 with multiple myeloma. It was totally unexpected. We’re not a family that has cancer at all—we’re a heart attack family. Nobody was expecting cancer. I started treatments at Central Vermont Medical Center with the idea of having a stem cell transplant at Dartmouth Hitchcock later in 2010. I became much sicker in October when I also developed plasma cell leukemia. I was in DHMC for about 5 weeks trying to stay alive. At that time I was extremely ill with kidney failure and was on dialysis; my liver was failing, I had internal bleeding and some kind of infection, they weren’t sure what. I recovered enough to go ahead with the transplant, which was my only hope, in December 2010. I spent about 5 more weeks in the hospital. Then I started my road to recovery, which was a bit slow to begin with because I had gone through a lot. As time went on I became stronger and healthier. I was in remission at that point and have been ever since. Because the leukemia is aggressive, I have ongoing treatments and will have them continuously.
Where did you find support when you were first diagnosed?
I had my husband but didn’t have a support group, and, being British, my family was far away. I had some support from co-workers and my husband’s family but I didn’t know about Kindred Connections at that time. I was actually feeling like I had to fight it myself, it was my battle. After going into remission, and feeling brighter but not able to return to work, I became isolated. I went to a cancer survivor celebration at Central Vermont, where I met you, Sherry Rhynard, Mary Ellen Simmons and others. I learned about Kindred Connections there and I resisted at first; I didn’t want to hang out with sick people, surrounded by reminders of my cancer. But then I went to a potluck and met other people with multiple myeloma. It was uplifting; I realized they were out there living their lives and I saw that being with people with cancer wasn’t depressing. Instead, it was a nurturing community. They wanted to help, if I asked for it. I found I could explain how I felt and know they understood and got it. I could say anything and they wouldn’t look at me askance; they were very accepting.
What motivated you to become a Kindred Connections volunteer?
I initially hadn’t had support or anyone other than my husband to talk to, and I’d heard other people’s stories of the support they’d had through KC. I realized how much better it would be to have that kind of help, someone you can speak to on phone or meet in person, someone who would just check in on you. I thought, “I’d like to do that for other people” so they won’t feel alone through this journey that can be so overwhelming. For someone like me, with no background of cancer in the family, it can be all new language and very confusing.
Exactly what do you do as a volunteer? Can you give an example?
I’ve had 5 or 6 connections. Some I’ve reached out to by phone or social media. We’ve talked about their experience and mine, how they’re alike and different. I’ve seen them in person when they were getting infusions or in the hospital. I like to take them crystallized ginger—the best thing for nausea—or a book and CD of uplifting music. If they need more practical help—not just talking about stuff—I can visit and take them to treatment, or to do errands, or just to get out.
What would you tell other people considering this?
You will get as much as you give, maybe more. You make friends through your connections. It might be someone you wouldn’t have thought you’d be friends with, the connection helps you become quite close. It’s nice that you make a difference in their life, but it’s made a difference in mine as well. It helps me not to look inward all the time at my issues. I can get downhearted at something silly—like my frustration with the sewing machine just before you called today—but when I connect with people at the beginning of journey I can remember what it was like and then little things aren’t so bothersome anymore. And having connections keeps me from dwelling in the past; it helps me move forward.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
One of the benefits of having a Kindred Connection is that you can feel free to say whatever you need to say. People always asked me, “How are you keeping your sense of humor?” I was doing it because it helped me but even more because it helped those around me. I didn’t want to act miserable and sad because it would bring everyone down. But sometimes you have to let things out, show your anger and despair. If you do this with your Kindred Connections volunteer, you’re validating those feelings in yourself without upsetting your family.
Our local support group is a potluck every month. It’s where I’ve met a wider group of survivors with different kinds of cancer. We’ve developed a camaraderie, sharing sad things at times but overall having good experiences and I come away feeling revived. The group energy is very positive.