What Is the SHARE Helpline Anyway?

Actually, the SHARE helpline is several helplines now, and chances are that if you've participated in a SHARE program of any kind, you've called one of them. They're the gateway to SHARE's services: You call a helpline to sign up to attend a support group or register for an educational event.

But the helplines aren't just a route to other programs. They're destinations in their own right.

SHARE started out in 1976 as a group of a dozen women who met once a month to discuss their breast-cancer experiences. At a time when the trauma of breast cancer was intensified by the taboo against talking about it, those early members of SHARE felt empowered by their freewheeling discussions of everything from sexuality to fears about death. They wanted to spread that empowerment to more women. And so the breast cancer telephone helpline was established in 1979—followed by the Spanish-language helpline in 1992, the ovarian cancer helpline in 1996 and a dedicated helpline for caregivers in 2013.

Today the helplines receive calls from across the U.S., answered by more than a hundred volunteers who have been trained to provide basic information and support. Though each of us has had a unique cancer experience, every one of us has felt firsthand the distress of receiving a cancer diagnosis.

When you dial 844-ASK-SHARE (844-275-7427), a menu will help you select the desired helpline, and your call will be answered by a volunteer who will listen to your concerns and attempt to address them. If you raise a question outside her experience or knowledge, she will arrange for you to receive a call from a "peer," a volunteer whose circumstances or cancer subtype or language, matches yours. SHARE's peers speak 15 languages in all. As you progress through your treatment or as new concerns arise, you are welcome to call again and again. You may feel especially comfortable with a particular volunteer. If so, you can ask to speak with that person again. All calls are confidential.

Depending on your concerns, a volunteer may tell you about special programs that are likely to be of interest to you. These include a wide range of ongoing support groups as well as special presentations on new cancer research, complementary treatments, nutrition, exercise, and side effects like lymphedema. SHARE is one of very few organizations that provide information and support specifically for metastatic patients. Indeed, around 23% of calls to the breast-cancer helpline are from women with metastatic disease. All of SHARE's services, including the helplines, are free of charge.

Here's what helpline volunteers CANNOT do: Give specific medical advice, offer direct financial assistance, visit you in person.

Here's what volunteers CAN do: Provide basic information, suggest resources, help you brainstorm your options, share their own experiences.

Sometimes you don't have a specific question; you just want to talk to someone who understands what you're going through. That's fine too. SHARE's helpline volunteers genuinely want to help. That's why they volunteered for the helplines in the first place.

Next month, Megan will start a new monthly blog column called "Helpline Question of the Month."