Breast cancer patients’ best medicine –Friends, family, community

By Julie Kerns Garmendia
Resident Community News

As critical to a breast cancer patient’s treatment and recovery, is the commitment and support of a passionate team of health care providers, family, friends and caring strangers.
Bonnie Verlander, Helen Ghezai Miller and Gail Gibson are deeply, forever grateful to those who stood beside them through their breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery.
New Point La Vista resident Bonnie Verlander — along with her husband Alan and four daughters, ages nine to 15 — were shocked to receive the news that Verlander, then 38, had breast cancer. She underwent a double mastectomy and four rounds of chemotherapy. But the family was bolstered by a large group of friends who helped her beat it. Verlander’s support group included friends, neighbors, co-workers, church leaders and community contacts from both sides of the river. Her vigilant team called themselves “Buds for Bonnie.”
The group mobilized quickly and efficiently. Each friend claimed a task that would support Verlander. Avondale resident and friend Katie Elksnis, for example, handled the assignment of scheduling meals for the family. Husband Alan updated a website that included news of Verlander’s progress. Other friends cleaned the refrigerator, planted flowers at her house or stayed with Verlander during chemo treatment. Alan Verlander’s mother, Karen, managed carpool for the family.
“It meant so much to me — I couldn’t stand long or lift anything,” Verlander said, recalling how one friend helped her pick out flowers and let her sit and watch while she planted them. “It was wonderful, those little things kept life normal.”
Verlander said friend and San Marco resident Kathi Vodenicker was her “chief cheerleader.”
“They all made this a very different experience than it would have been,” Verlander said.
Vodenicker’s breast cancer scare came just before Verlander was diagnosed, but her biopsies were benign. She remembered the morning she happened to phone right after Verlander had gotten the cancer diagnosis.
“Bonnie and I already had such a heart connection. Our friendship was based on a foundation of grace and faith and I had just gone through my own scare — I knew some of what she was feeling,” Vodenicker said. “I wanted to help keep her life happy and normal. She’s such a gift — she’s an amazing woman, wife and mother.”
San Marco resident Kelly Murphy helped Verlander by getting groceries for the family and organizing school lunches. On some occasions she spent the night with the family when Alan was out of town. Murphy, a mother of boys, said she felt blessed to help Bonnie and her daughters.
“Bonnie is brave and courageous — she’s such an example of how to survive hard times with utmost grace and dignity,” Murphy said. “Everyone cooperating to help her simply shows we can each help someone in need in ways that really matter.”
With the hard work behind her, Verlander plans to run The 26.2 with Donna half-marathon in February 2013 with her 71-year-old father and several Buds for Bonnie friends. At the end of October Verlander will complete the final phase of her treatment.
Gail Gibson, a breast cancer survivor, found a way to help others learn as much as they can about the disease. She volunteers to distribute information for the Pink Ribbon Symposium (table at Riverside Arts Market) and for Brides Against Breast Cancer. Gibson, an accounting clerk currently job hunting, is also a community volunteer for the Presidential Election Campaign.
“In 2010 a lump I found was diagnosed with Acute Stage 3 breast cancer that had spread to lymph nodes, but not my bloodstream. Dr. Linda Sylvester, medical oncologist, gave me such confidence; I knew she was going to take care of me. She did not sugarcoat anything. ‘Gail’, she said, ‘this will be a very difficult year for you.’ My parents, friends, pastor, church and other churches helped me with rides, phone calls, encouragement and prayers,” she said. “In 2011 when I got my strength back, I began to volunteer at events to help other women like me.”
Sylvester is a founder of the Pink Ribbon Symposium.
Helen Ghezai Miller, patient of Dr. Cynthia Anderson, is a breast cancer survivor, single mother of three children ages 13, 16 and 18 and math teacher for Duval County homebound students all over Jacksonville — many in Riverside/Avondale and Murray Hill neighborhoods.
Miller’s breast cancer was found during a regular mammogram in 2010. She said help from neighbors and friends kept her going through her mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
“My family came from all over the U.S. to help — their love and support eased my physical and mental pain — it never occurred to me that I would not make it,” she said.
The commitment and support from others has inspired Miller to do the same for other breast cancer patients. Since completing treatment in 2011, she has been a volunteer for The Donna Foundation and Bosom Buddies at the Women’s Center. She also plans to attend the Pink Ribbon Symposium this month.

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