By Gloria Parkinson
Mary Ellen Winkelman, a long-time Clinton resident, is a 13-year survivor of breast cancer and knows just about every loop the disease will throw at you mentally and physically.
And she is using that knowledge to help others deal with breast cancer, whether it is a first diagnosis or those who successfully battled it but are now dealing with depression.
She is a volunteer coordinator in and around Boston for the American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery program, where she matches breast cancer survivors with women who need someone to talk to about their diagnosis, a procedure they’re about to undergo, or just how the disease is making them feel.
Winkelman was 44 when she was diagnosed with an early stage yet aggressive form of breast cancer 13 years ago.
“We (volunteers) tell our story,” Winkelman said. “We tell them what we experienced, what we did. We’ve been there, done that, so we can tell them that they’re going to experience the whole roller coaster ride.”
Sometimes a patient will need to be connected with several volunteers, based on the type of breast cancer they’ve got, the procedures and treatment options open to them, and any reconstructive work they might be considering, Winkelman said.
“We’re there to tell them that they will likely go on a roller coast of emotions; they’re going to be angry, ticked, wonder why the heck it happened it to them, laugh, cry, all of it,” Winkelman said. “And we’re there to tell them that all of these feelings are normal.”
Winkelman has a very positive outlook life. “Where I come from, you pick yourself up and dust yourself off, and say, whew, that was a bumpy ride,” she said.
“As my mother used to say, you can fold like a cheap lawn chair or as I say, you can come out with your boxing gloves on. And many of the women I talk to decide to come out with their boxing gloves on,” she said.
But there is a big weapon available to everyone fighting cancer. “Laughter is huge and it’s all part of the treatment,” she said.
When she was going through chemotherapy, she had a friend shave her head. She glanced in a mirror as she as exiting the shower, and was struck by her resemblance to her father. “I called my mother, and I said, ‘ma, now I look just like daddy.’ She said, ‘you’re father was a good looking man.’”
“I laughed, and when I tell people, they laugh and get a kick out of it,” she said, adding told it during a talk to a group of teen-age girls she spoke to recently. “It breaks the ice.”
After battling cancer, she began thinking of helping others with the disease and even had some pink business cards printed up with her contact information to give to people.
But once she found out about the Reach to Recovery program, she joined forces with the American Cancer Society because of depth of the support they provide to volunteers and the people they counsel.
To access the Reach to Recovery program in Central and Western Massachusetts, visit cancer.org or call the American Cancer Society toll-free at 1-800-227-2345. Breast cancer survivors interested in becoming volunteers can call 1-800-227-2345 for more information.