Who understands cancer better than someone who’s been through it? That’s the idea behind the Patient and Caregiver Peer Support Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). It connects current and former patients as well as caregivers for guidance and support through the anxiety of cancer treatment.
“Peer volunteers provide insight that no one else can,” says coordinator Wendy Bonilla. Patients and caregivers might fear being a burden to their family and friends, or even clinicians. But connecting with others who have walked the same path opens a safe space for the crucial conversations that people touched by cancer want — and need — to have.
“Finding someone who can understand what they’re going through is immeasurable,” says Wendy, who notes that the program has existed at MSK for more than 40 years.
Paying It Forward
A chain of support among three strangers facing colorectal cancer started when Michael Tomko, an interior designer from New York City, was diagnosed in 2018. He was having irregular bowel movements and noticing blood in his stool. His doctor brushed aside his concerns, says Michael, because he was only 47. But Michael knew something wasn’t right. He switched doctors and advocated for a colonoscopy. The result was shocking: Michael had a tumor the size of a lime in his colon.
Michael’s situation is part of a disturbing new trend: a sharp increase in the number of people under 50 being diagnosed with colon cancer. But he found support through his family and MSK patient mentor Cathy McVeigh. When he recovered, Michael became a peer-to-peer volunteer himself. His mentee, Mario, has vowed to pay it forward too. Here, Cathy, Michael, and Mario share how they helped each other get through some of the scariest moments of their lives.
Michael, patient volunteer: I was living an extremely healthy lifestyle. My doctor said, “You’re probably just drinking too much kombucha and working out too much.” The diagnosis was a complete shock to everyone in my life. A friend gave me advice that changed everything. She said, “When you’re in a time of trauma, there’s never enough of the right kind of support.”
Michael researched MSK’s support services and came across the Patient and Caregiver Peer Support Program. After reviewing her extensive database of volunteers, Wendy thought Michael would be a good match for Cathy, 71, a retired administrative assistant.
Wendy, program coordinator: Cathy is so warm. She had been treated for colorectal cancer and was comfortable speaking with male and female patients. I knew she and Michael would click.
‘Hungry for Information’
Cathy, patient volunteer: Sometimes men want to speak with other men, which I understand. But Michael wanted to know everything about my journey. I remember our first conversation very clearly. He was so hungry for information, and that made it very easy to talk to him.
Michael: Cathy taught me how to focus on what was immediately in front of me. Instead of worrying about the future, we looked at what needed to be dealt with that day or that week.
Cathy: When you get a cancer diagnosis, there’s so much information to gather. It becomes overwhelming. For me, the only way I was able to get through my diagnosis was to take things one step at a time. I tried to help Michael do the same.
Michael realized he wanted to follow in Cathy’s footsteps and become a volunteer himself. After he completed treatment, he went through the volunteer training process.
Michael: I thought, “There might be a young person who just got hit with this and needs help. There might be another Michael coming through the door right now.” I had the knowledge; plus, I had the best teacher, Cathy.
Cathy: Of course, I thought he’d be wonderful. He’s not shy about anything. He’s so willing to give of himself.
Someone Who Gets It
Wendy matched Michael with someone even younger than him: Mario, a fashion buyer from New York City in his early 30s. Like Michael, Mario’s doctor also had told him his gastrointestinal symptoms were nothing to worry about. After he was diagnosed, Mario went for help at MSK.
Mario, Michael’s mentee: I just had this inclination to call MSK. After a year of feeling like I wasn’t being listened to, I came to MSK and finally felt like I was being taken care of.
Michael: You know when you meet someone you like, you just kind of jibe with them? It was like that. Our cases were very similar, and we had a lot of other things in common: We both had creative careers, we were both members of the LGBTQ community, and we were both in strong, committed relationships.
Mario: I wanted to know how to have the best quality of life while on treatment. Even little things made such a difference. For example, Michael provided tips and tricks for chemo prep. We talked about how cancer treatment is a marathon, not a sprint, and how important it is to utilize all the support you can find. It was also so nice to have someone to celebrate milestones with, to talk to after getting bad news, or to help me prepare for appointments. We would make lists of questions to ask.
Wendy: Michael understood his struggles.
Mario: He has been my guardian angel, my little fairy godmother.
‘Our Relationships Weren’t Forced’
Inspired by his rapport with Michael, Mario now wants to become a volunteer. In the meantime, he’s written a series of essays about his experience as a young person with cancer.
Mario: I hope to talk to early onset patients. You’re young and you’re just taken out of your life. Your friends can’t really relate. It’s isolating.
Wendy: We want patients and caregivers to know that they can be supported by someone who has been through it. We want to make sure they have the support they need without having to find it themselves.
Mario: I really leaned on Michael. He really helped me through the entire process.
Cathy: Our relationships weren’t forced. They all came very naturally. I always ask Michael how his mentee is doing.
Michael: This was beyond something you could plan or organize. First, Cathy had to go through her illness, then I did, then Mario did. It happened this way so we could each help other.