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ONE SURVIVOR HELPING ANOTHER

Looking into the mirror, Maureen Weber examined every inch of her body. Focusing on her chest, she imagined what she would look like after the surgery.

Weber was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 1995 at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. The six weeks that followed before her mastectomy surgery proved to be an emotional roller coaster.

"It was extremely stressful knowing that I had cancer in my body and not knowing if it would remain in one place," Weber said. "You look in the mirror knowing that you're going to have an amputation. It was difficult to carry on a normal, everyday life."

During this time of questioning and uncertainty, Weber sought support from a breast cancer survivor provided by the American Cancer Society's Reach to Recovery program.

The volunteer, Mary Marvin, quickly became not only her comforter, but her best friend.

"It was six weeks of hell and Mary got me through it," said Weber, 59, of Lewiston.

Between 1993 and 1997, 3,636 cases of breast cancer in women were diagnosed in Erie County, 2,288 of which were in the City of Buffalo, according to the State Department of Health.

In 1999, about 175,000 cases of breast cancer were diagnosed nationwide, according to the American Cancer Society. In recent years, the number of instances in men has also been on the rise, the society reports.

This year, about 40,800 people will die of breast cancer, the society reports.

"Breast cancer is something that happens to everybody," said Nancy Hanavan, patient service director for the Western New York Division of the American Cancer Society. "It doesn't matter what race or age you are."

Hanavan coordinates more than 100 breast cancer survivors who volunteer with the society's Reach to Recovery program counseling newly diagnosed patients.

"Through the years, the program has had to change a lot as the nature of breast cancer has changed," Hanavan said. "It became more difficult for women to make decisions about treatment. The focus now is on a connection to the patient. There's different circumstances today."

The program started in 1952 in New York City by a cancer survivor; the American Cancer Society adopted the program in 1969.

Volunteers must be at least one year past their own cancer treatment and undergo an extensive application and training process to prepare them for mentoring others. Training includes lessons on breast cancer treatment, diversity and listening and communication skills.

"One of the things that the volunteer represents is hope," Hanavan said. "We want someone who has made a really good adjustment. They have to be available emotionally to the patient. The focus is always on the patient."

Now, however, the society faces a shortage of volunteers because many of the counselors who have served the program for years have left, Hanavan said. Also, many of the older volunteers feel they are not in touch with modern treatments, she added.

"It's one of those programs that we are always looking for additional people," she said.

Catherine Bucki Gress of Amherst has been a volunteer with the program since 1992. After her diagnosis with breast cancer in 1990, Gress said she benefited from the support system.

"It was a horrific experience," she said. "I needed someone after I had the mastectomy. I felt so alone. It was just so wonderful to meet someone who was alive and well after she'd been through it."

Following her recovery, Gress started volunteering to give something back to the program.

"I feel saddened when women go through this alone," she said. "No woman should have to go through this alone. I have really met some wonderful, courageous women."

Inspired by the support provided by her counselor, Weber decided to volunteer with the program following her recovery.

The most important part of volunteering, she said, is having the opportunity to share your experience with other survivors and grow with each other.

"It's a woman to woman thing," she said. "It's a sisterhood. We try to help the women have faith. I made it through."

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