WOMAN WISE: Sharing Strength for Survival: Family Support Helps in the Fight Against Breast Cancer

By Susan Maltby

“Mommy, if Grandma had breast cancer, and you have breast cancer, does that mean I’m going to get breast cancer?” asks 10-year-old Emma Smith. “Mommy, are you afraid of dying?” asks her 8-year-old brother Justin. Their mother, Sharon Smith, 42, only halfway through her breast cancer chemotherapy treatments, searches for the answers she desperately wishes she could give her children. 

Winning the fight against breast cancer requires a positive attitude, courage, focus and determination. For patients who are mothers, battling to live and care for children is an added struggle that demands the deepest level of tenderness, honesty and openness.

Nationwide annually, more than 215,990 women and 1,450 men will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and approximately 40,110 women and 470 men will die of the disease. Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death for women in the U.S., according to the Mayo Clinic. Statistics from The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation estimates that in Los Angeles County this year, 6,690 women will be diagnosed and 1,105 will die.

Two years ago, Martina Rosso, a 38-year-old Long Beach mom, had to face the trauma of breast cancer. “I had a lumpectomy. They suspected it was nothing, but it didn’t turn out that way,” says Rosso. “That initial stage is horrible. From the diagnosis to the pathology report is the hardest time because of all the unknowns. You don’t know the monster you’re dealing with yet.” 

Smith and Rosso both know firsthand the initial fear, shock and devastation that accompanies a breast cancer diagnosis. But for these women, and thousands of others, there is some comfort in knowing that they’re not alone.

Friends for the Fight

Rosso credits her survival to the fact that she was in very good company throughout the experience. “My grandmother survived breast cancer, my mother survived breast cancer, and I was determined to see my own children grow up,” Rosso says. “I watched my mother go through everything with strength and a positive attitude. I had a better idea of what to expect and it reduced the fear.”

Today, Rosso shares her recovery as a volunteer “mentor” to 10 other women at the “Breast Friends” program offered through Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. “Breast Friends” is a peer support program that matches newly diagnosed patients with mentors, trained volunteers who are breast cancer survivors out of treatment for a year or more. Although every patient has a separate and unique treatment plan, the goal is to match women to  mentors with similar backgrounds and comparable treatment experiences. The free program is open to newly diagnosed patients regardless of where they are receiving treatment.

Program Director Michele Rakoff is proud of the free service that helps hundreds of women cope with the challenge of walking the path to survival. “I think it’s important that people get the message that this is part of what is available,” Rakoff says. “Women are supportive and encouraging to each other throughout their lives. Why not through breast cancer?”

As a proud and grateful survivor, Rosso is determined to be a strong example of courage to those who follow in her footsteps. “When people hear ‘breast cancer’ they think of someone sick or weak. Women are surprised when they see me. I’m happy. I’m healthy. I’m doing well,” she says. “It’s been two years since my diagnosis. I’ve been through surgery, reconstruction, a pregnancy and I’ve given birth. It gives us a positive outlook,” says Rosso. “We can say ‘Hey, if I’m on top of this, it’s not going to bring me down.”

Although many women are blessed with a caring circle of friends and family, survivors at the Breast Friends program can offer more in-depth experience and understanding. Women gain the added wisdom and compassion that only comes from someone who’s been there. “They’re willing to come to doctor’s appointments, hold your hand, talk with you, cry with you – whatever it takes,” Rosso says. 

Sparking Flames of Hope

At weSPARK (Support, Prevention, Acceptance, Recovery and Knowledge), the Smith family and many others find comfort, support and information to help cope with the trauma of breast cancer.

The free cancer support center in Sherman Oaks offers a multitude of services designed to heal the mind, body and spirit of all whose lives have been affected by cancer. In a home-like atmosphere, programs include ReRun, a caregiver’s support group for people whose cancer has recurred. Drumming circles, yoga and art are popular classes. weSPARK also offers a wide range of discussion-style groups for women, men, children and teens, on specific topic areas including grief and bereavement.

When Sharon Smith and her family began to attend counseling sessions at weSPARK, there were issues that everyone was thinking about but weren’t talking about.

“The counselor, Bonnie, asked the kids about the best thing that could happen and the worst thing that could happen,” says Smith. “I was a little apprehensive at first that she brought up the topic of death, but now I understand how important it is,” says the Tarzana mother of two, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in April. “It gave me a tremendous sense of relief that someone brought it up and it didn’t have to be me.”

When a parent is seriously ill, children experience fear, anxiety and stress. Sometimes they’re feeling sad but they don’t have the words to articulate their emotions. They worry about what’s going to happen to mommy or daddy. “We don’t just heal the patient, we help heal the entire family. That’s what we’re all about,” says weSPARK Program Director Nancy Allen. weSPARK provides children and teens with programs including art, games and play activities designed to help them get through the difficulties of a parent’s illness.

weSPARK also offers caregiver support for friends and spouses.

“Frequently, when people come in, the caregiver looks more exhausted than the patient,” Allen says. For the spouse, dealing with all of the day-to-day responsibilities plus the added load of caring for a sick loved one can be very stressful. “The focus is generally on the patient and the caregiver can often get lost in the shuffle,” says Allen. “We encourage the caregivers to take really good care of themselves.”

Through the warm support found at weSPARK, Sharon Smith is finding the words to help her children cope. She tells them “Yes, I’m afraid of dying, but I also know that I’m taking all the medicine I need to, and I have a lot of confidence in the doctors and I’m going to do everything I can to fight this.” 

FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Beating the Odds

According to the American Cancer Society, when breast cancer is confined to the breast, the five-year survival rate is over 95 percent. Martina Rosso and Sharon Smith are alive today partly because they both went to their doctors right away after discovering a suspicious lump.

“My nurse once told me that when doing a self-exam, a tumor often feels like the ‘tip of an almond,’” says Rosso. “When I first felt a lump, I had a sinking feeling and I just knew.”

Smith said her lump didn’t show up on the mammogram. “If I hadn’t insisted that something was there, and just went by the mammogram results, I would have walked out of there without even knowing I had breast cancer,” explains Smith. “Women shouldn’t just depend on mammograms.”

The Komen Foundation and the American Cancer Society have issued the following guidelines for early detection:

FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">• Monthly breast self-examination for all women beginning at age 20.

• Clinical breast examinations at least every 3 years by a physician or nurse beginning at age 20.

• Annual screening mammograms for women beginning at age 40.

It is important to regularly examine breasts and become familiar with them in order to recognize any changes in normal tissue.

According to experts, here are some warning signs to watch for during breast self-exam:

• Any lump or hard knot found in the breast or armpit that does not shrink or lessen after your next period.

• Any change in the size, shape or symmetry of your breast.

• Any dimpling, puckering or indention in the breast. 

• Redness or roughness of the nipple or breast skin.

• Nipple changes, discharge, tenderness or pain.

In most cases, breast lumps and changes are not cancer, but if you notice any of these changes, see your doctor immediately.

Sweet Ways to Help 

Pink-and-White Blend M&M’s® Milk Chocolate Candies –  Masterfoods USA will donate 50 cents from every specially marked eight-ounce pack ($2.99) to the Susan G. Komen Foundation for breast cancer research.  

Save Lids to Save Lives™ – Yoplait donates 10 cents to the Susan G. Komen Foundation for every pink lid mailed in.



• Breast Friends Survivor/Patient Mentor Program – Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, Michelle Rakoff, Director, Long Beach. 562-933-7815 – Offers a peer-to-peer mentoring program for newly diagnosed patients.

• Team Survivor Los Angeles – 310-829-7849,  – Free exercise, health education and support programs for women living with cancer.

• weSPARK Cancer Support Center – 818-906-3022, – Provides free support programs for cancer patients and their families.