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By Dianne Yost, Staff Writer

Twenty-six years ago on October 10, Madisonian Judy Gilbert underwent a mastectomy at Emory Hospital in Atlanta. It was her 41st birthday. She was 40 years old when first diagnosed with breast cancer by her local physician, Dr. Lewis. That’s when her life took a dramatic turn toward a path she continues to travel. “I felt a lump; there was no pain. Dr. Lewis knew immediately that it was cancer. I’m a fourth generation breast cancer patient and Dr. Lewis knew my family history,” she said. According to Gilbert, getting that diagnoses was among her most life-altering experiences. “It’s real scary, especially when you have children at home.” To get through the initial diagnoses and later the treatment, Gilbert relied on the help and support of her family and friends. “This community gave me an unbelievable amount of support. My mother was also a breast cancer survivor and she helped me so much. She was diagnosed when she was 48 years old, survived and lived to be 86,” she said. That immense help and support inspired Gilbert to open her life up to others suffering from breast cancer. Today, Judy is a Reach To Recovery Volunteer with the American Cancer Society (ACS).

According to Gilbert, a physician contacts the ACS and recommends potential volunteers. “I was contacted by the ACS out of Texas and am a trained volunteer.” Specifically, the American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery program is a nationwide volunteer effort to combat cancer in the U.S. and bring help and support to those for whom cancer has a very personal meaning. According to ACS, for more than 35 years, Reach to Recovery has been an important part of that effort, serving thousands of people confronting breast cancer. Reach to Recovery volunteers understand the devastating effects this disease can have. They also believe that the support of someone who has experienced breast cancer can be invaluable in finding the strength and resources to cope with this experience and to move forward as a survivor.

Gilbert says the program utilizes the survivor’s first-hand experience and provides a number of tools in the form of brochures that address a variety of subjects related to breast cancer. For breast cancer patients, Gilbert says, “I know what they are going through. I’ve been on that journey and survived.” And, Gilbert believes that no one should have to go through breast cancer alone. Through her work with Reach To Recovery, Gilbert says she walks through what the individual is going through via phone conversations or in-person visits.

“I’m a 26-year survivor. I tell them that and it gives them hope. I always try to be encouraging. I tell them to listen to their doctors and to rely on family and friends because they can provide tremendous support. I prioritize that for these women and encourage them to take every advantage of opportunities that will help and support them.” She recently worked with a breast cancer patient in Washington, Ga. “This breast cancer patient didn’t have fresh, nutritious food and didn’t have transportation. She had to ride a bus to Augusta to get her radiation treatment and wait all day to catch the bus back home where she would eat canned food.” In addition to offering her support, Gilbert went a step further. “I was able to call the American Cancer Society office closest to her and they found her help with healthy food and transportation to and from Augusta.” A lot has changed in 26 years. “Diagnoses, treatments and medications have changed significantly.” But what hasn’t changed are preventive measures.

Gilbert says women need to pay attention to family history because it’s very important when it comes to breast cancer. She also recommends monthly self-exams and going to see your doctor once a year for an exam and mammogram. “I know several friends who have it now. They struggle every day. I know the pain they go through. Until you’ve been there, you just can’t know. I’m one of the lucky ones.”

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