For the last 15 years, Rhonda has been turning her experience of breast cancer into something positive. She is one of the generous women who volunteer at Counterpart to provide peer support to women diagnosed with breast or a gynaecological cancer. She has kindly shared her thoughts about volunteering for our service.
15 years ago I answered an ad for volunteers who had experienced breast cancer. Little did I know it would be the start of a new life for me.
I was 24 years down the track from my first breast cancer, there wasn't the wealth of information that's available now and no one spoke about it much. This was a new and unique venture, a Resource Centre for women who had had breast cancer, who could walk in or telephone and speak to a volunteer who understood how they felt, who had experienced the same things and had the same fears for the future — thus, BreaCan was born.
We were the first group — trailblazers if you like — guided and nurtured by wonderful staff; Di Missen and Helen Shepherd, our mother hens! Later to be joined by Justine, Josie and Nicole.
I was rostered on with Mary, another volunteer, for our very first day: the first day the service opened. We were co-located with Women's Health Victoria and every time the lift door opened we held our breath and turned our heads. Our first visitor was a man seeking information for his wife who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Phew, the ice was broken!
We were (and are) a tight group and have a special bond to this day; something that is the same with each new intake of volunteers. Our training was intense and continues each time we meet and speak with another woman. We learn from each other — the volunteers and the women who use our service.
I was asked if I could recall a memorable moment. There are a few but one stands out, not for assisting a woman with a cancer diagnosis, but when a crossdresser came into our Centre enquiring about breast forms, what we had and if we sold them. Following a quick consultation with a staff member, we did show them our display drawer and sent them off to Myer. We provide a safe, welcoming space and try to help everyone who walks through the door!
I volunteer because it is important to give other women hope and support, for them to see me looking and feeling well, and to show them there is a life after a cancer diagnosis. To be able to speak with someone who understands what they are going through — who gets it — is a great relief for them.
In May 2007, we expanded our service to do just this for women with gynaecological cancers. We now have a growing number of Peer Support Volunteers who have had a gynaecological cancer diagnosis. They are now working alongside their breast cancer peers. We all connect with women by phone, in the Resource Centre and in hospitals — with our wonderful Bridge of Support program. We also give hope and support to our service users' loved ones.
And it has given me so much in return: belief in myself, confidence and the friendship of many wonderful women — our volunteers; always there for each other. Both our Peer Support and Program Volunteers. I love being part of it!
The insidious hand of cancer came to me again in 2014 — a total shock, as it had been 36 years since my first diagnosis. I was afraid of letting other women down, of them being fearful of a return, but I have learnt that I am stronger than that and hopefully I give them even more hope for the future.
Volunteering at Counterpart gives me a lot of fulfilment. I have met many wonderful and inspiring women. It's a privilege to be part of it and I feel that I get as much out of volunteering as I hope I give to the women who contact us.
I couldn't finish this without mentioning the engine room which supports and guides us and the many great women who have worked in the 'back' office; planning and organising the What's On, Bridge of Support, Making Connections, our apps and various other programs/activities to reach out to the women with breast or a gynaecological cancer.
In May 2017, our name changed to Counterpart. Prior to launching our new name there was much brainstorming, discussion and angst but now we have embraced it and moved on for after all it's only BreaCan in disguise.