The Power of Friends and Family

Social networks are key to fighting breast cancer.



Peer navigators Eileen Ingenthron, far left, and Judey Miller, far right; chat with patient Clare Chase-Tanner, left, and surgeon Dr. Veronica Shim.

Photo by Stephen Texeira

Judey Miller and Marlene Zuehisdorff sat across from each other at Caffe Trieste on Piedmont Avenue on a rainy afternoon, smartly dressed in black pants, sweaters and boots, and armed with umbrellas. Miller wore a signature bright blue scarf. Their conversation was animated and bounced between their breast cancer journeys, to the latest in treatment and research, and the myriad volunteer activities they do to support women with the disease. The two friends met six years ago through the breast cancer support group at Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center.

Zuehisdorff described her breast cancer as a typical case diagnosed in an atypical way. Ten years ago, at age 60, she had breast reduction surgery. Years of mammograms never revealed a problem, but the pathology report from surgery was positive for cancer. Miller had already dealt with cancer—melanoma—as a young woman, and she had a sister who died of breast cancer at 45. When she found a lump, at 58, she knew what she was facing and didn’t waste any time: She had a biopsy, mammogram, and ultrasound that very day. Still, the diagnosis brought Miller to sobbing tears.

Both women had many friends and family to support them. As Zuehisdorff went through treatment, her neighbor knocked on her door each day to grab her for a morning walk. Miller’s support included a caring husband and members of her church. And both joined Kaiser’s breast cancer support group straight away.

“When all you can think is ‘oh, I’m going to die,’ talking with others takes away the fear and grounds the experience in facts and data, reality,” said Zuehisdorff. “You feel overwhelmed at different phases of the journey,” added Miller. “Listening to people who have managed through where you have yet to go, gives you hope.”

The idea that having a social network is helpful to patients with breast cancer, or any cancer, seems intuitive. But does the support of friends and family make a difference in the long run? A recently published study of more than 9,200 women with breast cancer from around the country, including many from Oakland and throughout Northern California, and a site in China, says yes. Women with breast cancer who have larger social networks do better—they have a lower risk of the breast cancer returning, and they are less likely to die from the disease.

The wide-ranging study followed women post-breast cancer diagnosis for an average of 10.5 years and some for as long as 20 years. Socially isolated women, those with few friends and family and without religious or community ties, were 43 percent more likely to experience a breast cancer recurrence, 64 percent more likely to die of the disease, and 69 percent more likely to die of other causes.

Why a strong social network has a positive influence on breast cancer outcomes is hard to pinpoint, said Kaiser epidemiologist Candyce Kroenke, lead author of the study. And not all social connections had the same impact with different patient groups. “There was definitely some complexity to the study results,” said Kroenke. “For older white women, having a spouse was a significant factor for reduced risk of recurrence and death. But for women of color—black and Hispanic—ties to friends and family were more significant.”

The study, thought to be the largest prospective study of social networks and breast cancer, was not fully representative, however. Black and Hispanic women were underrepresented in the study, and Kroenke said more research is needed to examine social connectivity and breast cancer outcomes in these groups.

“What defines support differs between patients,” said Dr. Veronica Shim, medical director of the Breast Center at Kaiser Permanente Oakland. “Personalization is important,” she added.

Kaiser has created an online community for its breast cancer patients through the platform Smart Patients. There, patients and caregivers can ask questions and give support in a safe, moderated online environment. Plus, Miller and Zuehisdorff are part of a network of volunteers at the Breast Center, known as the Partners in Pink, who provide one-on-one peer support to newly diagnosed breast cancer patients. Last year, the group worked with 23 women—calling, emailing, attending appointments, meeting for coffee—providing social support.

Their commitment to helping other women with breast cancer has become an avocation for Miller and Zuehisdorff and taps their best assets—a warm smile, a listening ear, and unbridled enthusiasm. After Caffe Trieste, the pair headed off to attend the weekly breast cancer support group meeting and from there to Baja Taqueria on Piedmont for “Taco Tuesday,” where they meet each month with other women with breast cancer to share a meal. Recently, the pair set up a nonprofit organization (PinkPartners.org) to provide financial assistance, for co-pays, transportation, and basic needs, to low-income Kaiser members with breast cancer.

“It’s our turn to give back now,” said Zuehisdorff. As the study showed, these women know it gets better “with a little help from your friends.”

 

Published online on April 4, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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