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Finding strength in their sisterhood

IU Health West Hospital

Finding strength in their sisterhood

Breast Cancer Coffee Club meets monthly at IU Health West. “Every time someone new comes in, you just want to hug them and tell them it’s gonna be OK.”

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist,

On the second Friday of every month, the women come one by one to take a seat in the small private dining room off the main cafeteria at IU Health West Hospital.

They laugh and joke, share stories and recipes, and swap herbs and apples across the table.

This is a safe place. A place for survivors of breast cancer to talk about their journey and to welcome others who have just started down the path of diagnosis, surgery, chemo, radiation and more surgery.

Breast Cancer Coffee Club is a peer-facilitated support group with occasional speakers and social activities. It’s “group therapy without having to pay for it,” one member says.

It’s comfortable for the long-timers, a little scary for the newcomers. But all are here to learn, to support and to take charge of their health.

Michelle Hoy, a social worker in the IU West cancer center, leads the group, which has been meeting since 2010.

“Even if you move on from the acuity of your cancer and its treatment, there’s something that brings you back,” she said as the 11 women seated around the table nodded. “There’s a connection and a desire to be able to talk to new people.”

Women who’ve been through treatment for breast cancer remember the fear they felt at diagnosis and can empathize, but they also can say “this is what helped me through that.”

“There’s a lot of heartfelt sharing on a level that … you can only get with somebody who’s walked in those shoes,” Hoy said.

Rhonda Hall and Sandra Whitten have been with the group since the beginning. When they were diagnosed a decade ago, neither knew anyone who had breast cancer.

“I didn’t know anything because nobody ever talked about it before,” Whitten said.

Hall, diagnosed first in 2008, then again in 2009, had a similar experience. It was after she finished treatment that this group started, and she’s been coming ever since.

“It is just very helpful to be able to talk to people. I learn a lot from them, and they can learn from you.”

Whitten channeled her anxiety during and after treatment into making heart-shaped pillows for other women to use during radiation.

“After I finished radiation, they gave me a little pillow to put under my arm because I couldn’t sleep – it burned so bad from the radiation,” she said. “I started making my own pillows, and I’ve been doing it almost 10 years now. I can’t just sit back, I’ve got to do something to help all our fellow people.”

Nina Coley was diagnosed two years ago this month. She attended her first meeting in December of 2017 and says she thrives on the energy of the group.

“The ladies are wonderful, and we share information,” she said. “It’s really good to see people who have been through the journey and are thriving and that’s what you see in this group.”

Coley, who recently retired from the U.S. Postal Service, has some traveling on her bucket list – to Dubai, the Panama Canal and America’s national parks – and she is active in breast cancer awareness fundraising walks.

Like others in the group, she values the sisterhood she shares with the other women, a bond that gives them courage to face whatever is around the corner.

“I just remember falling in love with these people,” one member said. “Every time someone new comes in, you just want to hug them and tell them it’s gonna be OK.”

For more information on the Coffee Club, contact Michelle Hoy at