Unique Program Helps Breast Cancer Patients find Peer Support

ELK GROVE -- When Tina Valadez was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, she was already very familiar with the disease. The Elk Grove resident had watched her mother battle the same disease, and lose the fight.

“I was overwhelmed,” she said. “Those words of cancer, when you receive them… there’s so much to take in. So I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I’m going to die.’ I’m planning my funeral for Christmas.”

Tina says, her friends and family surrounded her with love. But she still felt alone. Aside from her doctor at Kaiser, Dr. Claudia De Young, she had no one she could turn to with questions.

“I’d have a question, and I wouldn’t know who to go to. I couldn’t go to my boyfriend, or my children. There was no number for me to call,” said Tina.

Tina made it through her treatment at Kaiser Permanente, and is now cancer-free. But when Dr. De Young asked Tina if she would like to be a guide in their new ‘Peer Navigator’ program, she jumped at the chance. Think of it like a buddy system, a way to support new patients who may be struggling with their diagnosis.

Dr. De Young says having the support of patients who know the cancer journey is critical.

“I think we realize in the cancer care community the importance of support. Whether that is group support, one-on-one navigator support, family support, friend support—it really makes a difference long term in cancer patients,” said Dr. De Young.

Delora Morran is one of those patients who found long term benefits in the program. Based on her family history, she was expecting to be diagnosed with breast cancer. But that didn’t mean the journey would be easy.

“Putting these drugs in your body that are trying to kill you, but you’re trying to be better. Then you’re getting shots to up your white cells. So, it’s difficult,” said Delora.

Like Tina, Delora had a whole community of friends and family who wanted to help her fight. But the diagnosis was isolating.

“It is lonely,” admitted Delora. “You know you don’t want to talk about it all the time, you don’t want to worry your family. So you try to let your feelings out, but you try to hold back a little bit, too. Because you don’t want them to be sad.”

But when Dr. De Young introduced Delora to Tina, Delora found someone she could talk to, about anything. Someone who understood her hopes, and her fears.

“We were laughing, we were crying, talking about kids, talking about the surgery and what’s going to happen. And drains, and tubes. Like, she gets it! We can talk about those things, and we can laugh about those things,” said Delora.

Delora has been cancer-free for a year now. But her friendship with Tina continues on past the program.

“She’s just amazing,” said Delora. “She’s made things a lot easier.”

For Tina, who never had a peer navigator to guide her, she’s found strength in being a leader. She’s now navigated nearly two dozen women through their cancer diagnosis. Tina is someone her friends can lean on, when they need it most.

“Now, my ladies are asked to call me whenever. To wake me up. Whether they need to talk, whether they need me to listen to them, or they need me to cry with them. I’m there,” said Tina.

They’re more than friends. They’re family.

“They become my sisters in pink,” said Tina.