By Emily Williams
Betty Shivers and Michelle Mills have a lot in common, both being cancer survivors. The two women live in Vestavia Hills with only a few streets separating them, but they may never have met if not for their involvement with Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center.
Forge was founded in 2016 and provides a wide range of services for breast cancer survivors and their caregivers and families. The organization partners with Brookwood Baptist Health System, Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, Grandview Medical Center, St. Vincent’s Health System and UAB Medicine to provide the emotional support and healing that a doctor can’t provide. It serves a five-county area in north-central Alabama.
There are programs and offerings for the newly diagnosed, patients undergoing treatment and survivors. Forge offers individualized planning, matching with peers and advocates, support groups and resource referrals among its services.
Shivers has worked with Forge since it began, volunteering first as a peer mentor and then as an advocate for women who, like Mills, are undergoing treatment.
“Our advocates serve as guides for breast cancer survivors and their co-survivors by providing information, support, encouragement and assistance to help survivors and their loved ones work their way through diagnosis, treatment and survivorship,” said Claire Gray, Forge’s manager of community outreach.
Advocates help steer survivors and co-survivors through the medical process, checking in on them with a phone call or going to meetings with a survivor to help take notes and manage resources.
A retired Pelham High School teacher, Shivers was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010.
She was diagnosed with a ductal carcinoma in situ, located on her right side. Nothing had shown up on a mammogram, but she noticed small issues with her right breast and was able to catch the cancer at a very early stage.
“I was fortunate that it was very early, so I did not have to – after the (double mastectomy) – do chemo or radiation,” she said.
This August, Shivers celebrated her ninth anniversary as a survivor, with many of those years spent giving back to the breast cancer community through volunteer work.
Sharing With Others
“First you have to deal with your own stuff,” she said. “As soon as I knew that I was fine and I was gonna be fine, it became just a really important part of my life to say, ‘What can I do to give someone else an opportunity to have a listening ear or shoulder to cry on?’”
She co-founded a support group at her church, Prince of Peace Catholic Church, after her recovery that continues to meet once a month and includes an interdenominational group of survivors ranging from 20 years cancer free to the newly diagnosed.
While they do book speakers for the group, it’s mostly about sharing.
“That’s the biggest part of this meeting is to be able to share, and there is some serious sharing that goes on,” Shivers said. “There’s laughter. There’s tears. There is a combination of emotions that just run the globe and I’m just so happy to be a part of it. It’s been great to be able to just reach out to other women.”
Through the support group, she was connected with Forge as it was first starting out and quickly signed on to volunteer.
“Number one, they were about the patient for life, not just until you get over this year or two. You’re with us for as long as you need us,” she said. “Number two, they work with the family, with caregivers and with co-survivors.”
Shivers crossed paths with a former student who was in her 30s and praised Forge for providing support for her young children.
Sometimes, It’s New Tires
Forge has brought an entirely new element to Shivers’ volunteer work and given her experiences she treasures.
For example, one of her first clients lived in Boaz and corresponded entirely over the phone.
One day, the two women were discussing treatment and Shivers’ client told her that she was worried about getting to her treatments at UAB in the winter because she needed new tires. Through Shivers’ connections at Forge and her support group, she was able to raise enough money to get some new tires.
“I had never met her, but it doesn’t matter. That part doesn’t matter. It’s just an opportunity to help,” she said. “It’s all individual. It’s all about meeting the person where they are and getting a sense of what they might need.”
A Hand to Hold
Mills was diagnosed for the first time on Nov. 21, 2016. She went through chemo and radiation relying solely on friends and family for support.
When she was diagnosed with a recurrence less than a year after her first diagnosis, she was completely thrown.
“I just felt like that was it, that was the end of my life with the second diagnosis,” Mills said.
Her world shaken, Mills backed away from family and friends, feeling that her emotional state was too much of a burden. She reached out to Forge after seeing a flier at one of her doctors’ offices.
She called the number and was immediately connected to Toria Pettway, Forge’s client services coordinator, who went through a questionnaire and provided Mills with medical information, but also information on resting and self-care.
“They asked me if I wanted to be paired with an advocate and I said, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I want.’ And they connected me with Betty right away.”
Shivers and Mills’ relationship began with phone calls once a month, checking in and getting updates on treatments.
Having Shivers’ support has been vital for Mills, as her own family is spread out across the country and globe. Her mother lives in Illinois, her father and one of her brothers live in Idaho, her second brother lives in Colorado and her sister lives in Sweden.
Though the two women have been connected since 2017, Shivers didn’t meet Mills in person until Mills was going through her second big procedure for her second diagnosis.
Mills’ mother was coming in from out of town, and Shivers wanted to be there to sit in the hospital waiting room with her, “because mom had no one to sit with her, and how hard is that,” Shiver said. “The time just goes so slowly.”
Once at the hospital, Mills’ mother insisted that Shivers meet Mills before the surgery.
“It’s so strange in some ways to meet someone when they are getting prepped for major surgery,” Shivers said. “I’m not a family member. I’m not a friend, at that point. I’m just this person that is trying to help you get through this.”
When Mills had her first cancer diagnosis, hospital staff handed her a booklet from the American Cancer Society and that was that. She didn’t think to go and look for other women or support groups, but this time around it became a necessary move to support her mental and emotional health.
Mills had been invited to Shiver’s support group at Prince of Peace in 2017 but couldn’t find the time to attend because she was still working full time at a job that requires a large amount of traveling.
“I went back to work too soon, too quick and too gung-ho,” she said. In January of this year, Mills went through burnout and spent January through about March just focusing on herself.
“I was in counseling, therapy, physical therapy and then decided I needed to start socializing,” Mills said.
“The only time I ever see people with cancer is when I’m at UAB. And I’m not the type of person to strike up a conversation,” she said.
After her first support group meeting, she immediately was affected by the experience of meeting, talking and listening to other breast cancer survivors.
“You can talk to somebody who has not been through it, but they can’t understand,” Mills said. “This is how I equate it. Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I had two uncles in Tennessee – one had melanoma and one had leukemia. When I would go and see them, I would feel sorry for them, but I wouldn’t know what to say.”
Mills, who is in Phase One of recovery after a double mastectomy, was able to talk to someone who has been where she is and understands how painful it is to have a tissue expander.
She also appreciates the chance to share her knowledge with other women.
“A few years ago, I was on the other side, not knowing but learning,” she said. “Now I’m on the other side and I’m at the end of it. I’ve done it. I know all of the tricks. Women who are newly diagnosed, I can tell them.”
Both women agreed that the breast cancer journey is better together.
“I can’t imagine how you can get better alone,” Shivers said. “It’s just too hard.”
The Prince of Peace support group lost a member for the first time about two months ago, a survivor who was in her 40s.
“How hard it would have been for her best friend, who was a member of the group, to have to go that alone,” Shivers said. “And she didn’t. We came here and celebrated this woman’s life and it was just a beautiful evening to say, ‘We are better people for what she did and brought to us.’”
When Shivers first retired, she never thought she would have breast cancer, and she never thought she would be living the life she is right now. But that life is more rewarding than she could have imagined.
Even if the breast cancer community is one that she never wanted to be a part of, it’s one she can be excited to be a part of.
“It’s a baby. Forge is just beginning, but to have all of the hospitals, all of the big players buying into it. You don’t make that happen easily,” she said.
“With the research that UAB is able to do, among other hospitals, one of these days, maybe some of this won’t be happening at all. How good would that be?”