Alberta Cancer Foundation

The Power Of Peer Support

Together in a loose circle, in a quiet room, women dealing with breast cancer talk. Some of the women laugh and some cry — yet a positive energy floods the room.

This is how Sandy Hammer describes the atmosphere of the Women’s Show and Tell Lounge, a welcoming space for women to pose their questions about breast reconstruction surgery and find support in others who have been there before them. The lounge runs as a part of BRA (breast reconstruction awareness) Day — a national one-day event that runs in select Canadian cities during October, supported by the Canadian Cancer Society and other local organizations like the Alberta Cancer Foundation. Calgary has held a BRA Day every year since 2013, and Edmonton’s most recent BRA Day was in 2017.

“[The feeling] amongst all those women [in the lounge] was empowerment,” recalls Hammer, a six-year volunteer of the event whose own double mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery took place in 2012. “The funniest thing was that we all decided we would like to show off our new boobs — we wanted people to see them.”

Safe spaces and conversations are vital in de-mystifying breast cancer-related surgeries and can take a lot of the fear of the unknown out of the picture, says Dr. Claire Temple-Oberle, a surgeon at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre who specializes in breast reconstruction.

The inaugural BRA Day event was held in Toronto in 2012, and in 2013, Temple-Oberle brought BRA Day to Calgary. She ran the event for five years — before passing the torch to Dr. Jennifer Matthew — in order to arm women with knowledge and support in an often-overwhelming time.

“My main role is to ensure that a woman considering breast reconstruction knows all her options,” says Temple-Oberle. “There’s no pressure from the medical field for women to have reconstruction; it’s just an option with pros and cons.”

During the 2015 BRA Day in Calgary, the first Partner’s Lounge opened. It’s a space where partners and care-givers are welcomed to join the conversation around breast cancer reconstruction and its outcomes (so long as they accompany a female or female-identifying partner).

“[The lounge] lets people know that they’re not alone and they can get through this,” says Brenda Smith, who underwent a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction in 2015, with the support of her husband, Jim.

Today, Brenda and Jim volunteer together in the Partner’s Lounge in Calgary at the yearly event and field questions from nerve-wracked loved ones, and those facing surgery themselves.

Not all people can attend BRA Day, which is why Temple-Oberle refers patients considering breast reconstruction to peer volunteers who have had the surgery, a role that both Sandy Hammer and Brenda Smith perform.

“Often a friendship is actually built [between patients and peer volunteers],” Temple-Oberle says. “It’s really quite a beautiful thing.”