Hearing the words "breast cancer" may be the loneliest moment some women ever face. However, from the day of diagnosis, patients in the four-county Birmingham metro area are never alone. They have the support, resources and volunteers of the Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center standing with them.
"Our peer match program teams each patient with a survivor who has been through the same experience," Claire Gray, Forge Community Outreach Coordinator, said. "Patients who are newly diagnosed usually have a lot of questions. It can be difficult to absorb everything you hear in those early office visits, and some things can only be answered by someone who has been through the same thing.
"Sometimes it's good to just have another set of ears and a person you can talk with without having to be brave. Survivors learn a lot from each other and share ideas about coping with everyday life while in treatment."
Created as a special project funded by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham's Women's Breast Health Fund and partnering with local hospitals and health care providers, the Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center is geared not to duplicate available services, but to fill the gaps. These gaps became larger recently when a major national support organization closed its local offices across the country.
"The Forge is locally-based and supports breast cancer survivors in Jefferson, Shelby, Blount and Walker Counties," Gray said. "In addition to linking survivors to learn from each other, we give them access to experts to help with multiple areas of life impacted by breast cancer. For example, at our Coffee Conversations , a pharmacist recently discussed hormone therapy and a financial advisor talked about managing the financial impact of cancer.
"When patients are sick and can't work, we never want them to have to choose between paying their rent and buying groceries, so in difficult situations, we offer grocery gift cards and gas cards or transportation vouchers so they can make their appointments.
"We look at the whole person and work to meet their needs. That includes mental health services through Oasis counseling to help patients and families manage the stress of a serious illness."
Wellness after a cancer diagnosis is important, so the Forge brings an oncology nutritionist to show patients how to eat healthy and how to make healthy meals that are appetizing. There is also yoga and a variety of classes from gardening to fly fishing to help keep survivors active, enjoying life and learning new things.
"Our lifestyle programs include classes in journaling and creative arts. There are also classes using social media and recording that can be accessed any time," Gray said
Another recent development is the expansion of services to include the Spanish-speaking community.
The Forge has also established two support groups for patients who are likely to be dealing with different types of concern.
"One is our support group for younger cancer patients, generally under 45, who may have small children at home or are dealing with the added concerns of launching a career, dating or building a relationship in a new marriage," Gray said. "The second is our Metastatic Support Group for patients with stage 4 cancer. They may be interested in exchanging information about clinical trials, medications and discussing their concerns and personal journey."
In addition to funding by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, the work of the Forge is supported by two annual fundraisers. With an office in a beautiful old Victorian home in Five Points South with a great view of Vulcan, so during the Forge's Fourth at the Forge fundraiser, the group invites guest to come for dinner and enjoy the fireworks over Red Mountain.
The second and primary fund raiser of the year is the Haute Pink fashion show during October Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
"We pair clients, friends and volunteers with local designers who create looks especially for them," Gray said. "How breast cancer survivors see themselves, their feminine identity, is important. The fashion show is a wonderful opportunity to showcase these women as beautiful and empowered. They get to dress in fabulous clothes with great hair and makeup and feel as beautiful as they are.
"In the end, these strong women find the power within themselves to handle whatever challenges life may bring."