SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Sam Kelley went to see the doctor for what he thought was a sore throat. He was told to get his affairs in order and do what he could to remain comfortable for his few remaining days.
He was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer and told there was nothing that could be done for him.
That was 2009. After seeking a second and third opinion, and undergoing an experimental treatment that included chemotherapy and the removal of much of his esophagus, Kelley survived.
Now, Kelley offers to talk about his experiences, as well as provide an empathetic ear, to other Mainers facing similar shocks and diagnoses. He takes part in the South Portland-based Cancer Community Center’s Maine Buddy Program, which pairs cancer survivors with a wide range of experiences in one-to-one partnerships with others newly experiencing cancer.
With more than 200 volunteer buddies representing brushes with more than 30 different kinds of cancer, the program has survivors ready to relate to almost any new participant.
There’s Rita Thompson, who first lost her 12-year-old daughter to Ewing sarcoma in 1985.
“Five years later, my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer,” she recalled. “He lasted about a year.”
There’s Sue Graham, who discovered she had stage 4 breast cancer 18 years ago, then just two years ago was diagnosed with stage 3 thyroid cancer and stage 1b lung cancer.
“Even though I had yearly mammograms, it never detected my breast cancer,” Graham recalled of her first diagnosis, made after she felt a lump during a self examination.
There’s Virginia Cloutier, who was diagnosed with stage 3 uterine cancer seven years ago.
“It hit me hard,” she said of the diagnosis. “I just sat in my room and tears came out.”
Since the program launched in 2001, mission services director Molly Stewart said the “buddies” — who are all trained volunteers — have helped more than 1,500 participants.
Out of the 10 buddies who went through the program’s last wave of training in December, four had previously been through the program on the other side — as Mainers first experiencing cancer and calling for help.
Stewart said she matches participants with buddies based on whatever criteria the newcomer wants — geographic proximity, similarity in ages, life situations, whatever. She said the program has buddies between the ages of 20 and almost 90 years old.
Stewart said the service allows people newly diagnosed with cancer, or whose loved ones are newly diagnosed with cancer, a receptive listener to vent to, ask questions of and share feelings with. Many people try to bottle up their fears or anxieties because they don’t want to burden their direct family members or friends, she said.
“We have this sense of ‘No, I can do this’ or ‘I can handle this on my own,’ but we know that isolation can lead to depression,” Stewart said. “And we can tell from our exit surveys that buddies help reduce isolation.”
The process for the buddies varies from case to case, based on what the participants need.
Cloutier said she had to repeatedly call one of her buddies who seemed reluctant to talk, but then later sent a card thanking Cloutier for her persistence.
“She met me in person and said, ‘Thank you for never giving up on me,’” recalled Cloutier.
Sometimes the participants have more procedural questions — although the buddies have to be careful not to give medical advice, they can share their own experiences with doctors and treatments — and sometimes they’re seeking emotional support.
“Sometimes they’ll call up crying, and there’s not much you can say,” Graham said. “You listen.”
To learn more about the Cancer Community Center’s Maine Buddy Program, visit CancerCommunityCenter.org or call 877-774-2200. The center has buddies physically located in 10 of Maine’s 16 counties, and offers the service to people all over the state.
The cancer center is a standalone nonprofit that works closely with hospitals and other organizations to offer activities and resources for people experiencing cancer, such as support groups, exercise classes, games and art workshops.