Support from a Survivor

When Callie Dunaway found out she had brain cancer at age 26, she had immense support from family, friends, and her team of doctors at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. But she also had countless questions. She wondered what symptoms and life changes she would face during her treatment, what it would be like to live with cancer, and more. Callie, who happens to be the program manager of patient and family services at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, knew she could look to UAB’s Courage Companion program for answers.

Through Courage Companions, Callie had the opportunity to share her questions and concerns to a brain cancer survivor who was her age. She learned about the changes she would experience, and her fear of the unknown was eased. Because UAB didn’t have a Courage Companion with Callie’s type of cancer, her match was arranged through the Anderson Network at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Courage Companions is modeled after this network, and matches cancer survivors and caretakers with current cancer patients and caregivers. Survivors are able to provide the answers, guidance, and support that family and friends often can’t.

“I needed someone to talk to about the symptoms I was going to go through, like losing my hair,” Callie, who is now seven months into survivorship, recalls. “Thanks to my family and friends, I had everything I needed emotionally, so my match and I only spoke a couple of times. But there are some matches who talk for months and months and end up meeting in person.”

Callie’s mom, Judy Dunaway, also signed up for the program and spoke to an experienced caregiver about the pain she experienced as she cared for Callie. “My mom needed someone who had dealt with the stress of watching their child be sick.”

Deborah Llewellyn, a survivor of Hodgkin’s lymphoma and a UAB Courage Companion, wishes she’d had a similar program when she went through treatment in Tampa, Fla.

“I was fortunate to have the love and support of my family and friends, which was truly valuable. While I knew their encouragement and positive thoughts were genuine, how could they know what I was going through, and whether or not I would be okay?” Llewellyn says. “What I needed at the time was to talk to someone who had a similar diagnosis, who had lost their hair from treatment, and who could personally relate to my feelings and emotions.”

Wendy Walters, a family support coordinator at UAB, leads training sessions to prepare Courage Companions for their roles. “A peer support program can be very helpful to patients, because it allows them to talk to someone who has traveled a similar road. They have common experiences, and the volunteer can be enormously helpful, by sharing both practical tips and emotional support,” Walters says. “If they have both lost their hair, the volunteer may have a great resource that makes the best wigs in town, or a creative response to a rude stare. Or just be someone who can acknowledge how hard it is to get that stare.”

Llewellyn recognizes that Courage Companions is as beneficial to the volunteers as the patients. “The program gives volunteers an opportunity to use their personal cancer experiences to help others and to pay it forward.  For me personally, it’s an opportunity to bring something good out of what, at the time, seemed like the worst thing that could ever happen to me,” she says.

Modeled after the Anderson Network at MD Anderson Cancer Center, the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Courage Companions is fairly new and currently has 60 volunteers. Courage Companion volunteers are cancer survivors of one year or more and direct caregivers.  Patients and caregivers can access the service.

The match process is quick, Dunaway says. Patients fill out and submit an online application form and are matched with a volunteer within 24 hours. Patients are matched based on age, type of cancer, religion, and gender, to provide the best fit. If UAB does not have an appropriate match, a match is made with an Anderson Network volunteer. Patients do not have to be in treatment at UAB to be matched with a Courage Companion, nor do volunteers have to have received treatment at UAB. Patients from as far away as Canada have participated, Dunaway says.

Once a match has been made, the Courage Companion reaches out to the patient and schedules a time to talk on the phone or via email, depending on what the patient prefers. The match may speak once, multiple times, or even decide to meet in person. The depth of the program is up to the patient.

Volunteer training occurs on two Saturdays each year and covers active listening skills, understanding boundaries (for example, how a Courage Companion is different from a friend), coping with emotions, and more.

If you or someone you know is interested in participating in Courage Companions, either as a volunteer or patient/caregiver, visit the Courage Companion website for more information. Applications are available online and take only a minute to complete. If you have questions about the program, contact Callie Dunaway , (205) 996-5364.

Click here for a patient application.

Click here for a volunteer application.

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