Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute has a great mentoring program for cancer patients, but it can’t work without an influx of cancer survivors willing to offer their support.

Your Health | 25 days ago

Peer-to-Peer Mentoring Promises Mutual Benefits for Cancer Patients and Survivors Who Volunteer

Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute has a great mentoring program for cancer patients, but it can’t work without an influx of cancer survivors willing to offer their support.

Ophelia Sanchez has battled ovarian cancer for five years and previously dealt with breast cancer. She’s well aware of the ups and downs – the good days and bad days – that patients experience physically, mentally, and emotionally while undergoing treatment and being in recovery.

But Ophelia doesn’t let the disease get the best of her. She wants others to win that battle, too, with an assist from Levine Cancer Institute’s Peer to Peer mentoring program (P2).

“Cancer is not a good thing,” she says. “But you have to look at it in a different kind of way. So many people see the negative over the positive. You need to see the positive, even though you go through hard times and it’s a struggle.”

LCI launched P2 in an effort to better support patients who want to speak with others who have traveled the same path. Patients undergoing active treatment are connected with volunteer survivors who are at least one year out from treatment, or on one year of stable maintenance therapy. The mentors provide short-term support and encouragement to help patients along the journey.

“Many different organizations have similar programs,” says Annalise Sansouci, the volunteer coordinator for LCI’s resource center. “But we found that we really needed our own program for patients to meet with people locally who have had similar experiences.

“For this program to be all that it can be, we need a large pool of volunteers with different diagnoses and experiences willing to connect with others and share what they have been through,” she says, issuing a call to action. “Patients really want to connect on specific issues and diagnoses.

The Need is Great

Essentially every aspect of life has been affected by COVID-19, and P2 is no exception. The virus has highlighted the program’s necessity as patients deal with cancer diagnoses in the midst of a global pandemic, and adjust to the new norms such as social distancing and isolation recommendations for such high-risk individuals. But as a communication-based program, P2 is also well-suited for the new normal.

“Patients really appreciate having that person to talk to and really understand what it’s like to go through everything,” Annalise says. “That can be done in whatever way the volunteers and mentees choose. We used to allow in-person meetings and that’s the only thing that has changed. The system was already set up to be more of a virtual system.”

Because she’s not at least one year out from treatment, or on one year of stable maintenance therapy, Ophelia does not meet the standard for being a mentor. But that doesn’t stop her from serving in an unofficial capacity every time she visits LCI. She routinely strikes up conversations with fellow patients, sharing her story and getting to know a bit of theirs.

“My journey has been hard and long,” she says. “If I had somebody at that time to talk to and let off some of my burden, I would’ve loved it. That’s why I’m so interested in this program. When you go to the office, so many people don’t know if they’re going to live or what kind of results they’re going to get back. If I can give them a few seconds to smile, that’s my passion.”

A Mutually Beneficial Relationship

Research has shown that patients can benefit from emotional support services throughout their journey with cancer, and one-to-one mentoring services can improve their quality of life. But the survivors who volunteer as mentors can derive benefits, too.

“One participant said that being a mentor really helped her process her own experience,” Annalise says. “Going back through those things and walking through it helped. This really is a program where both participants get so much. It’s all about connecting with someone who’s been down the same path you have.”

The conversations move to subjects other than cancer, too. It’s good to have another person to talk to you. “The elephant in the room is always understood,” Annalise says. “With other people, even talking about regular things, there’s always the weight of cancer in some form. One volunteer said it was great to share the experience with someone who just ‘got’ cancer.”

Volunteers are trained in self-care, an important process for former patients supporting individuals in active treatment. Volunteers also learn more about LCI’s resources for patients, and ways to encourage self-advocacy among patients. “Those are some of the bigger points,” Annalise says. “And just how to be a supportive listener and how to share your experience in a supportive manner.”

No matter how many case studies staff members review, or how many conferences they attend, no can truly relate to receiving a cancer diagnosis unless they received one in the past. With P2, survivors can use their journey to help others in a safe, easy, and customized manner.

“This experience can look however the volunteer and patient wants it to look,” Annalise says. “Whether they connect via phone, email, text, or in person, volunteers can make it a personal experience that’s catered to their individual needs.”

Annalise and Ophelia hope that more and more survivors will sign up as mentors in P2. Though she hasn’t received a mentor, Ophelia is a true believer in the program based on her own experience. “As I tell people about my journey, it helps them see their journey in a different perspective,” she says. “And it can help them tell someone else. I want to see this program grow nationwide,” she says, “like a new dance craze.”


To learn more about P2, please email Annalise at Annalise.Sansouci@atriumhealth.org