Who are the volunteers on SHARE’s helplines—and how did they get there?

Helpline Question of the Month SHARE 40

This year SHARE celebrates its 40th anniversary. It was launched in Manhattan in 1976 as a support group consisting of a doctor and a dozen women with breast cancer. Forty years later, it has grown to serve more than 30,000 people a year nationwide, mostly women with breast and ovarian cancers and their caregivers. Many of those 30,000 call SHARE's helplines, which are staffed by volunteers. Most of those volunteers were once on the other end of the phone—calling SHARE for support.

The way I came to SHARE is typical. Ten years ago, I was scheduled for a bilateral mastectomy, and I couldn't decide whether to have reconstruction. I had seen photographs of reconstructed breasts in surgeons' albums, but I had never seen pictures of unreconstructed flat chests. A friend suggested I contact SHARE. The day after I phoned the breast cancer helpline, I got a call from a volunteer who'd had a mastectomy without reconstruction several years earlier. We talked for an hour about what her recovery was like, how she felt seeing her chest for the first time, what it was like to wear a breast form—or go without one—and whether she had any regrets. I had a lot of questions, and she answered all of them. I was so impressed that I made a decision on the spot—to volunteer for SHARE. It took a bit longer to make a decision about reconstruction (I decided against it), but I'm happy to say that both of my decisions worked out well for me. I've been volunteering on the helpline ever since—flat as a 10-year-old.

Back in the 1990s, Meryl, too, was looking into reconstructive surgery. She contacted SHARE and asked to speak with a volunteer who'd had a procedure similar to the one Meryl was considering. After speaking with the volunteer, Meryl felt confident in going ahead with reconstruction. "That was my first encounter with SHARE. When I retired I decided to volunteer for the phone line."

After Diane was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, she spotted a reference to SHARE while she was frantically Googling for information about her disease. She called the helpline to register for a support group, and the volunteer who answered the phone offered to check in on her in a week. And that's how it began. "Every Thursday morning about 11 a.m., my very own mentor would call me to see how I was feeling. We shared our stories. Mainly she listened and I spoke. My follow-up calls lasted for more than a year." Diane's mentor often told her, "You have such a positive attitude, you would be great at helping others." So Diane became a helpline volunteer in 2013 and a few months later was hired to manage the helpline schedule. She says, "I hope one day someone will come to me and say, 'Hey, you inspired me. I want to be a volunteer.' "

Afflicted with post-lymph-node-dissection pain, an extremely rare disability, Barbara called SHARE and was connected with a volunteer who suffered from the same condition. Says Barbara: "We were ecstatic to find each other, and exchanged info for about a year after our initial contact." That volunteer has retired, so when women call the helpline with a similar disorder, it is Barbara they speak with now.

When Sabina was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1995, she didn't know anyone who'd had the disease. But her brother put her in touch with SHARE, and soon Sabina formed a relationship with a helpline volunteer and began speaking with her regularly. "She was a schoolteacher and was able to work through her treatments," says Sabina. "This was very encouraging." Now it is Sabina who provides encouragement. "I've been a SHARE hotline volunteer for about 10 years," she says. "When newly diagnosed callers learn that I've survived 20 years, they are stunned and hopeful."

Jane was overwhelmed when she found out she had breast cancer. Her distress about her diagnosis was complicated by the fact that her mother had also had breast cancer and that her daughter was about to get married. One Saturday, she found herself crying uncontrollably. Suddenly she remembered hearing that an organization called SHARE was holding a meditation class that day. "So I just went and knocked on the door and said, 'I didn't register, but please let me in,' and of course, they did," Jane recalls. "It was fantastic." She joined a SHARE support group for women in treatment, then a posttreatment group. Then she started facilitating support groups and later helped develop a manual to train facilitators. For several years, she served on SHARE's board. Meanwhile, her daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer. Nowadays, Jane is one of the volunteers who respond to helpline calls from people who need help dealing with the diagnosis of a mother or daughter. "Unfortunately for me," says Jane. "I know both ends." But fortunately for her, she says, "I have met many wonderful women in the more than 20 years I've been volunteering at SHARE."

Bernadette, who was diagnosed eight years ago with breast cancer, is one of SHARE's newest volunteers. She learned about SHARE from a friend who volunteers on the ovarian helpline. For a little over a year now, she's been spending one day a week in the SHARE office, helping with paperwork and answering calls on the breast cancer helpline. "I wouldn't miss it," she says. "I've learned so much, talked with so many breast cancer sisters, and it's a highlight of my week."

Bernadette is far from alone in the pleasure she takes in volunteering for SHARE. All of us are impatient for the day that breast and ovarian cancers can be prevented or cured. But as long as women continue to be diagnosed, we take satisfaction in easing their way—as our way was once eased—with understanding and companionship.