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When Christianne went through breast cancer as a young mum 20 years ago, she felt isolated and in need of support. Shortly after, she discovered Breast Cancer Now’s services, and has since volunteered to help others like her.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer 20 years ago at the age of 36, and underwent a vast array of treatment, including a mastectomy with reconstruction, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy and an oophorectomy - all while looking after four young children.
Throughout this whirlwind of shock, grief, and physical challenges, I didn’t have anyone to support me apart from family and friends. While they were kind and sympathetic, they didn’t know from a personal viewpoint what I was going through.
Their stories of aunties, grandmothers and great grandmothers who had gone through it, while helpful and well-meaning, didn’t seem that relevant to me as a young mum; I felt very isolated, especially when going through menopausal symptoms early.
I wish I had known about Breast Cancer Now at the time, where I could have accessed one-to-one peer support from someone similar to me, and benefitted from specific advice and information around breast cancer from the website, phone line and publications.
It was partly this experience of isolation that made me search out the charity once I had finished my treatment and volunteer so I could be that ‘missing’ support for other women.
I also had to take early retirement from my job as a language tutor due to a pre-existing medical condition unrelated to the breast cancer. I felt - and still feel now - that volunteering gives me a purpose and uses my brain and skills for good, while fitting around my disability: I can choose to do as much or as little as I feel capable of.
Once I had completed my training, I started a number of different roles with the charity, all varied and interesting. I have now been volunteering for over 17 years.
My current volunteer work for Breast Cancer Now includes attending Moving Forward courses, both online and in person, to support the attendees and provide tips from personal experience.
These courses are aimed at helping people move on from diagnosis and treatment and live as healthy and happy a life as possible, both physically and mentally. It can be very hard at the end of treatment when all the appointments stop, people can feel abandoned, confused and fearful.
The courses can really help, with a combination of information from the charity and personal support and tips from volunteers.
The beauty of the online courses is that I can attend them from my own home, so they don’t rely on me being geographically close. However, I also enjoy the face-to-face courses as it is nice to meet attendees in person.
I also volunteer on the peer support service Someone Like Me, where the team matches someone in need with a volunteer who has had a similar experience.
My matches on this vary greatly. It can be quite specific, such as someone considering the type of reconstruction that I had, or who has children the same age as mine were. Or it can be general: they may want to talk about feelings that I experienced, or just to someone who has had a similar treatment path. No two calls are the same.
I enjoy volunteering because it is all about people: meeting people (whether that’s face to face or virtually), helping them and supporting them.
It is rewarding when you feel you have made a difference to that person’s experience of breast cancer, or their life going forward, however big or small that difference is. Just listening to them can be enough. It helps me feel relevant, useful, and stretches my brain, as well as using empathy skills to keep them from getting rusty.
I am told that I make an impact on the people I support. It can be as simple as someone who is worried about the future seeing me alive and cheerful 20 years post-diagnosis, thinking how positive that is, and feeling buoyed up by that, thinking that could be them. It could be someone who has been struggling with a decision, but having discussed it with me, feeling empowered to make that decision or to ask for more information. It could be someone who is newly diagnosed saying how much better they feel after speaking to me; that they are calmer and not as scared.
It could even have a more tangible impact, such as the day I was in a queue at a café and a woman I didn’t recognise came up to me and said, ‘You are the reason I had a reconstruction, I met you at a course a few years ago and was encouraged to go for it, and I haven’t looked back since.’
These types of feedback are worth their weight in gold and remind me why I am doing this.
Because of her incredible effort and dedication, Christianne was awarded the Tracy Williams Outstanding Volunteer Award for 2022. Congratulations, Christianne!
If you have previously been affected by breast cancer and would like to use your experience to help others by volunteering, we would love to have you join our team.
Beverley gets involved with Moving Forward courses and visits local fundraisers. We asked why she volunteers and how her work impacts the community. Learn more.
For Volunteers’ Week, we asked Elizabeth about her volunteering with us. She shared her breast cancer experience, what she gets involved with, and more.
Feeling lonely in her community, Zahida used our Someone Like Me volunteer service to get support. To give back, she decided to volunteer herself.