If there is one thing that unites us all, it’s our need to connect with those who share our same interests, struggles and successes. This camaraderie is especially important for those who have been diagnosed with cancer, as the healing process can be overwhelming, to say the least.
For many cancer patients, a support group full of other people going through similar circumstances can be just as healing as medicine. This is why, for almost three decades, the members of the PALS for Life breast cancer support group have worked hard to provide the sort of care that cancer patients cannot find in a hospital or treatment facility. Since its creation in 1992, PALS for Life has helped hundreds, if not thousands, of women struggling through a breast cancer diagnosis in the Miami Valley and beyond. The group is a part of The Dayton Foundation.
Prior to the pandemic, the PALS for Life support group met on the third Monday of every month at 6:30 p.m. at the Christ United Methodist Church in Kettering. At each support group meeting, those in attendance speak openly about their own personal struggle with breast cancer. It’s this openness to discuss such grim matters with heroic optimism that many of its group members laud.
“Some of the ladies have definitely had emotional problems handling their diagnosis,” said Joan Schuermann, one of the co-founders of PALS for Life. “Despite that, our support group is very upbeat. We don’t ignore anything that people have. And, you know, we listen to all of it.”
At every meeting prior to the pandemic, the group also offered its members many opportunities to receive professional support, services and educational resources. For example, psychologist Dr. Kathleen Bonie sat in at nearly every meeting, providing psychological services for the group and for those who wished to speak with her one-on-one. Other activities, like laughing yoga and Reiki, have kept the group busy over the decades.
“It’s a great group of women,” said Marsha Schneider, a PALS for Life board member. “They’re so supportive, and I just enjoy their company. We laugh a lot, we have a lot of good speakers that come in to speak, we do crafts, and sometimes we’ll have speakers that get us up and dancing or just meditating.”
The group was started as the Breast Cancer Fund in 1992 by members of the St. Elizabeth Breast Cancer Support Group by Schuermann, along with others. At the time, Schuermann was working as a cancer care coordinator for Montgomery County and wanted to create a support group that could give guidance and support to those women in especially delicate financial, emotional or medical situations.
Currently, the group is run by a number of breast cancer warriors, including Schuermann and Schneider, along with Lois Keil, Lori Ferraro-Yoder and others. Each woman’s battle with breast cancer is almost too heroic to simply capture in print. Ferraro-Yoder’s story points to the way that breast cancer is often a family affair. Three years after Ferraro-Yoder’s lumpectomy surgery, her mother was also diagnosed with breast cancer. Fast forward to a few decades later and both women are healthy and happy.
“My mother came down with breast cancer after I did,” said Ferraro-Yoder. “Normally, it’s kind of the other way around that a mother has it first, but I think my mom had fairly dense breast tissue, so maybe it was a slower-growing cancer. But, my mom is going to be 89 in January, and she actually has had breast cancer two more times after that. She’s a tough lady. I am fortunate that she is still with me.”
Many of the women in attendance and serving on the board of PALS for Life have also dealt with a breast cancer diagnosis at a decidedly young age.
“When I was 37-and-a-half, I had my first round with breast cancer,” said Keil. “It was kind of a surprise. Nine years later, the cancer came back in the other breast, and that’s when I decided to have a mastectomy.”
Artist P. Buckley Moss, a renowned artist with roots in Dayton, is also a major part of the group.
Outside of the support meetings, the PALS for Life group also offers breast cancer-related services to those in need. These services include, but are not limited to, breast prostheses and bras, prosthetic wigs, compression garments for lymphedema, post-surgery pillows (these are especially popular) and cancer counseling. Those who are eligible can receive these services free of charge, courtesy of PALS for Life.
“It’s a good feeling when we help these women,” Yoder said. “It’s just good to know that you’re helping somebody.”
The group has now been independently operating for nearly two decades, meaning that all of the money they raise for charitable services for others is done through fundraisers and donations. And, as you can imagine, their typical fundraising missions have been sidelined due to the pandemic.
Currently, the ladies are holding their regular support group meetings over Zoom and working hard to complete all of the requests for post-surgery pillows. These small, heart-shaped pillows make the recovery process all that much easier and are a necessity for keeping your arms relaxed and separated from your torso post-surgery. The pillow is heart-shaped in order to fit snugly under the armpit. So far this year, PALS for Life has delivered 367 pillows to those in need.
More than anything else, though, the PALS for Life breast cancer support group has inspired lifelong friendships and support through the darkest of times. As many of its members have pointed out, feeling supported during a cancer diagnosis can actually improve the odds of survival. Throughout the years, all of its members have valiantly fought to beat cancer, and many have been victorious. In fact, according to the group’s leadership, most deaths that occur in the group are a result of old age and not due to breast cancer.
Even after successfully beating breast cancer, most of the women have opted to remain active in the group. This loyalty is perhaps a testament to the strength of the friendships created in the PALS for Life support group.
“The group members have stuck with us,” Schuermann said. “They love it. They have all become really good friends. It is a wonderful group and deep, deep friendships have developed here.”
How to help
To donate to PALS for Life, send a check to The Dayton Foundation at 1401 S. Main Street. Suite 100 in Dayton with PALS for Life Fund #2995 on the check memo line.
If you or someone else you know would like to become a member of the PALS for Life breast cancer support group, visit their website or send an email to PALSforLifeDayton@gmail.com to learn more.