What do you tell someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer?
“There’s life after,” said Joan Aucoin, typist II/payroll clerk with Eastern Health’s surgical day care program at the Health Sciences Centre.
In December 1999, Joan was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 38.
As you can imagine, being diagnosed changed her life.
“Your priorities change, I mean I’ve always had a good outlook on life really, but once you’re diagnosed, it changes things,” Joan said. “When you have two small children, they become your focus.”
After going through the options, Joan decided that she would undergo a double mastectomy as a pre-cautionary measure because her mother was diagnosed at age 52 and breast cancer is sometimes hereditary.
“I wanted someone to talk to who was around my age,” Joan said. “So I would ask the public health nurse, can you give them my number to patients who are going through the same thing as me?”
“That’s how it all started.”
Joan started Sharing our Strength, a breast cancer support group, shortly after her diagnosis and has been facilitating it for 14 years.
When the group started, they would meet on a monthly basis at members’ homes – it started with Joan’s.
“I hosted first for the longest time because people were more comfortable in that setting,” Joan said. “We’ve never gone to an office setting and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve lasted as long as we have.”
Sharing our Strength helps patients sit and talk to someone who has gone or who is going through a similar experience while keeping the sessions informative.
“It’s great to have a support system,” Joan said. “But sometimes you just need to talk to someone who’s been through the procedures, symptoms and had the medications.”
Typically, the group keeps the meetings as informative as possible. Sharing our Strength brings in speakers from different areas of expertise such as oncology and plastic surgery, as well as other cancer related experts.
Through these speakers, Joan has been able to help the members through their cancer treatments and even remission.
“Joan facilitates a wonderful support group; she is a great advocate, supporter and friend,” said Peggy Manning, member of Sharing our Strength. “She lives life to the fullest and is a great inspiration for women diagnosed and living with breast cancer.”
Since inception, the support group has had regular attendees and a total membership of over 60 people who are not only breast cancer patients and survivors but anyone with any type of cancer.
As there a lot of people, Joan has grown close to them all. “They’ve become my family,” Joan said.
The impact of that type of family doesn’t just affect the cancer patients or survivors.
After encouragement from her husband, a woman found Joan at the registration desk at surgical day care and thanked her.
“I came here today to thank you,” the woman said. “The day that you spoke to me and showed me what you had done and told me about support groups – you changed my life.”
She started to think about the bigger picture because she didn’t realize the impact that one small thing could do for a person.
“If I’m doing this for one person,” Joan said. “How many others was I helping?”
A helping hand
Joan is always helping people, whether it be at work or in the community.
“On the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time in six months, I met Joan in the corridors of the hospital and she encouraged me to go to the breast cancer support group meeting,” said Erin Pennell, member of Sharing our Strength. “That meeting introduced me to many positive, even life-changing experiences.”
Erin added: “She continues to work tirelessly and fiercely to do everything possible to promote support and education for breast cancer survivors.”
For 14 years, Sharing our Strength has been a huge part of Joan’s life. Whether she’s going on coordinator retreats with WILLOW, or helping with the Newfoundland and Labrador Breast Cancer Retreat, she’s always looking to lend a helping hand.
So as you can expect, it came as a pleasant surprise when Joan received her nomination for a YWCA Women of Distinction Award.
It was an even bigger surprise when she received a call informing her that she won the Paulette Senior Award for Contributions in Community/Neighborhood based on making their community a better place while offering support to those in the community.
“When I received the call, I said oh my gosh!” Joan said. “Never did I think I would win. I’m sure there are a lot of women out there who do a lot for the community.”
Her support doesn’t end at Sharing our Strength; she’s been heavily involved with other cancer support initiatives. Some of these include:
- Relay for Life;
- Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation – CIBC Run for the Cure;
- NL Breast Cancer Coalition;
- Workshops for WILLOW; and
- An international conference on cancer awareness.
Looking at everything Joan does for the community, you might think, how does she have time for it all? But in Joan’s words “I live for the moment.”
“You do all of it because you want to help people and I just love the feeling of saying, I can help you.” ■
To find out more about Sharing our Strength, please call, 709-777-6940 or email, Joan Aucoin.
This story was written by Brandi Roberts, a public relations co-operative education student with Eastern Health’s Corporate Communications Department.