Until that day in September 2006, Suzanne Shapiro was just like working mothers everywhere.
Her world revolved around her three sons’ carpools and sports practices, and her job as the administrator at the Congregation Children of Israel.
Not even the rare cold could keep her from working the job she had loved for 32 years.
“I had never been sick a day in my life,” she said.
She felt fine that morning as she clasped on her necklace and wondered why it lay lopsided on her neck.
She called her doctor, and a biopsy on a swollen lymph node confirmed stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“Non-Hodgkin’s is different than Hodgkin’s. Non-Hodgkin’s you can’t cure,” she said.
“This just came out of nowhere.”
September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month, and Shaprio is doing whatever she can to help spread awareness and provide support for those who are suffering as she has.
Shapiro went through chemotherapy. In the spring of 2007, she had a stem cell transplant using her own harvested stem cells.
For 3½ years, she did very well.
“Then it raised its ugly head again,” she said. “I had to have another transplant.”
Her brother was a match, and his stem cells were used for the second transplant.
Her first bout had been easy, but the second time she endured complications including osteoporosis and abdominal bleeding. Only later did she learn just how sick she really was.
Today she is in good health, but the battle has left her with considerably less energy. Food no longer tastes good, so she has lost a tremendous amount of weight, she said.
But she refused to dwell on the bad stuff.
“Negativity is not a word in my vocabulary,” she said. “I was determined if I could help one person, I think that would be the most wonderful thing.”
She organized a bone marrow drive at her synagogue, and now helps raise money through the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night Walk.
Now, along with four other blood cancer survivors, Shapiro has formed the LLS Peer Mentor Ambassadors through the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s First Connection Program.
The group is the first peer mentoring volunteer program for the society in Augusta, said Rosalinda Ramirez, patient services manager for the Georgia chapter of the LLS.
Each of the volunteers has been a peer mentor in the First Connection program for about a year. As volunteers in that program, the survivors share their stories and support patients who have been diagnosed with blood cancer.
The enjoyed their work so much they decided to form a team, Ramirez said.
“We don’t mind being a First Connection and being a peer mentor because we felt we would better serve patients, because we’ve been there and we’ve done that,” Shapiro said.
Patients appreciate talking to someone who knows what they’re going through.
“Talking to someone (who has been there) gives people a lot of hope,” Ramirez said.
Anyone who volunteers has to go through at least six hours of training to be sure that they are emotionally able to handle someone else’s struggle.
Some of the volunteers with more training visit cancer patients in the local cancer centers.
Peer mentors are matched to patients based on the type of cancer, topics the patient wishes to talk about, and other life circumstances. Some patients want to talk about the diagnosis and treatment, while a mother may want to know how another mother broke the news to her children, Ramirez said.
Shapiro said she did not have a peer network to lean on when she was first diagnosed, and she doesn’t want other patients to feel as alone as she felt.
“It’s devastating when people don’t have anyone to turn to,” she said.
Shapiro is waiting for the next opportunity for more training so she can visit patients in person. For now, she talks by phone with cancer patients across the country.
“They’re facing what I faced, but I didn’t have anyone to help talk me through it,” she said.
“I always said many years ago, if I survived all this, if I could help just one patient, that was going to be my mission in life.”
For more information about becoming a peer mentor or to request to speak with a volunteer, call Ramirez at (404) 720-7807.