The Breast Cancer Ambassadors

Published in Greater Washington Area - Spring/Summer 2020

Photo caption: Jacqueline Beale, Ann Everett and Judy Sackheim share their breast cancer experiences with women recovering from mastectomies. 

Conversation in the hospital room ping-pongs easily from one topic to another: Paddle boat races for breast cancer survivors. Managing post-mastectomy pain. Choosing a new breast size.

Nothing is off limits, as Judy Sackheim, one of three Breast Cancer Ambassadors at Suburban Hospital, talks with Roberta Burkes, a mother of three in her early 40s. Burkes is alert and sitting up in bed as she recovers from a double mastectomy the day before.

The Breast Cancer Ambassador program, launched in 2015 by Suburban’s breast cancer nurse navigator Jamie Borns, brings volunteers Sackheim, Ann Everett and Jacqueline Beale to the bedsides of patients who have had mastectomies. (The program is currently on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic.)

“I know a lot about what you’re going through,” Sackheim tells Burkes. Sackheim also underwent a double mastectomy, in 2015. “You now belong to a big group of survivors, a group of very positive and very energetic women,” Sackheim says. “And that includes me.”

“When you’re a patient, you appreciate things like this,” Burkes later says. “You come in not knowing what to expect. It’s easier to believe what they’re telling you because they’ve been through it.”

The ambassadors arrive bearing Bosom Buddy Baskets — gift collections wrapped in pink gauze and filled with thoughtful post-surgical items including a fuzzy pink blanket, a sleep mask, a stress ball and an unusual stuffed toy lamb that fits on a seat belt strap to cushion surgical wounds.

The baskets are from the nonprofit IIIB’s Foundation in Virginia, which creates and gives 100 Bosom Buddy Baskets each year to Suburban Hospital — enough for all women having mastectomies there.

Sackheim hands a basket to Burkes, then spends the next hour listening, answering questions and describing her own experiences with breast cancer. She urges Burkes to stay ahead of the pain by taking medication as needed, and tells her the drains inserted to capture the fluid will be removed before she knows it.

“I just want to feel normal,” says Burkes.

“You’re going to find your normal again and look so good,” Sackheim assures her.

Burkes, a hiker, wants to find a support group built around outdoor activity. Sackheim tells her about the DC Dragon Boat Club, a rowing organization with teams of breast cancer survivors, and Casting for Recovery, a fly-fishing retreat.

Borns, the nurse navigator, says she started the Breast Cancer Ambassador program because patients wanted more information from women who had experienced breast cancer surgery. She recruited Sackheim, Everett and Beale, each a Suburban Hospital mastectomy patient, as its volunteers.

The ambassadors — by coincidence all two-time breast cancer survivors — usually volunteer once per week. Their “ask me anything” approach, combined with their visible health and happiness, reassures patients going through a frightening and life changing time.

Of course, not all patients can expect the same positive outcomes as the volunteers. “Sometimes the prognosis is not favorable,” acknowledges Borns. “If a patient has metastatic disease, I’ll tell the ambassadors before they go into the room, and they’ll just talk about whatever the patient wants to talk about.”

Pamela Fogan, the hospital’s director of volunteer services, describes the ambassadors as “a special group of ladies. They tell patients what to expect and how they’ll feel. They just have an extra sense of what’s needed.”