Stories of Hope
Survivor Champions a Diverse Group to Reach to Recovery
Article date: April 30, 2002
I was just so impressed by the program and what it was she was doing, that I thought, this is what I want to do. This is what I need to be doing.
Volunteering Becomes a Passion
Even though her mother died of breast cancer, Esther Fussell never considered that it might strike her too.
Fussell, a breast cancer survivor, lives in Macon, Ga. She's an American Cancer Society (ACS) volunteer, and works with the ACS' Reach to Recovery program on local and national levels.
Fussell trains other volunteers in cultural sensitivity and how to talk with women from different ethnic backgrounds. Fussell is an example of someone who is trying to change things for the better.
Fussell wanted to be a volunteer even before she was a survivor.
Before her diagnosis, and the meeting that would change her life, Fussell was contemplating her retirement about five years away.
"I would still be relatively young — what can I do to put back into my community to make it a better place?" she asked.
Fussell had been getting annual mammograms since age 32. Her doctor recommended it the year after her mother's death.
"I thought that (her mother's death) was the end of the story," Fussell said. "I had no knowledge of breast cancer… I just thought that this is going to be part of your annual check-up, not knowing … this might be something that would happen to me."
Vigilance Pays Off
Then in 1990, when she was 50, "calcifications showed up on my mammogram and from that point I was referred to a surgeon," she said. "Then...the biopsy revealed that the calcifications were indeed malignant. I didn't have a lump. So if I had been waiting for a lump to appear, I might not be doing this interview with you today."
Now cancer-free, she credits her survival to early detection.
At the time of her diagnosis, she was working at a technical college. One day while one of her coworkers was doing her hair, Fussell shared her news.
"We had a former coworker who was a cancer survivor," she said. "(The stylist) thought that this person would be somebody good for me to talk to because this person had been a long-term survivor. And she knew she did something with the Society but she didn't know what it was so she got right on the phone, called the person. And the person called me. And that's how I learned about Reach to Recovery."
The survivor was a woman who had had "been a survivor for a long, long time," Fussell said. At the time her surgery was done, "everything was removed – the breast, the underlying muscle, everything. And not only had she survived, she came back to work and she was living a full life, playing golf, I mean, what better role model could I have than that?" she asked.
Volunteer's Visit Inspires Action
"She came to see me in the hospital and I was just so impressed by the program and what it was she was doing, that I thought, this is what I want to do. This is what I need to be doing."
After her operation, a modified radical mastectomy, she pursued her goal — to volunteer. "I started in 1991 as a basic Reach to Recovery volunteer," she said. "Then in '92, I became a trainer. And the at that point, I continued to go and grow with the program!"
"When someone says to you, 'you have breast cancer,' probably that's the most devastating information that you will have received at any given point in your life," Fussell said. "I think that what you may want to do first of all is try to get release — cry, scream, yell, talk it out, bring it out, whatever it is you need to do. And then, get a grip on yourself.
"Write down your concerns talk them over with your (doctor), discuss your options, and then make the decision that you need to make," she said. "Follow through completely with what it is you need to do for yourself, and then get on with your life. There is life after breast cancer, and life can be good after breast cancer."
On the local level, Fussell has served on the board of directors, as secretary of the board. She is Region 1 coordinator for Reach to Recovery in the Southeast Division and still does training. She has also been involved with the Cancer Survivors Network, which she helped develop.
On the national level she is involved with the cancer control training team. She works in diversity — how to get into ethnic populations and talk about cancer control, especially breast cancer.
Fussell was awarded the Terese Lasser Award in September 2001 for outstanding service to the Reach to Recovery Program.
"You ask sometimes, 'well, what can I do? I'm only one person,'" she said. "Well, Terese Lasser was one person who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. And she didn't know anybody else. She just thought to herself, you know, if there' s somebody else out there with this, I would just like to talk to them."
Lasser brought the idea to the ACS more than 30 years ago, and it became Reach to Recovery. "The program started with one person. And now we are approximately 18,000 volunteers working with Reach to Recovery. Isn't that phenomenal?"