'Sisterhood' offers empathetic ear following cancer diagnosis

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WOODBURY — Claire Emery was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. In the months that followed, she endured multiple rounds of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy.

With her treatment now completed, the Woodbury resident has turned to helping other women facing a similar ordeal.

Emery is a volunteer mentor for The Firefly Sisterhood, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that connects women diagnosed with cancer to cancer survivors for one-to-one support. The organization matches its mentors — called Guides — based on a host of criteria such as age, cancer stage and life experiences.

For Emery, that means she is matched with other mothers in their 30s undergoing a similar cancer treatment plan. To date she has been a mentor to around eight women.

The nature of the mentor relationship is shaped by each individual, ranging from occasional phone calls to more frequent face-to-face talks. Conversation topics can vary as well.

"Some are really focused on the diagnosis and treatment plans, others have concerns about what it means for their family," Emery said.

The level of individualization sets The Firefly Sisterhood apart from traditional support groups, which may include women of all different ages and treatment plans, she added.

"And if it turns out the match isn't a great fit or they're not ready to explore that yet, there's no commitment."

Someone to talk to

Talking with a peer mentor who has gone through her own bout with cancer can be a source of hope, said Kris Newcomer, executive director of The Firefly Sisterhood. And because the conversations are confidential, women are free bring up subjects that may be too difficult to talk about with with family or friends.

"Being able to say those things that you know will scare your kids to someone else, who understands how scary it is, it's really helpful," Newcomer said.

In addition to signing a confidentiality agreement, all Guides go through mandatory in-person training on listening and empathy before they can be matched.

Mentors are not allowed to discuss medical advice or give treatment and provider recommendations, Newcomer added.

How to apply

The process to be matched with a mentor begins on the organization's website, www.fireflysisterhood.org. An application form asks for basic contact and background information. Someone from the organization will respond within 24 hours to begin the matchmaking process, Newcomer said.

The website also has instructions to apply to be a Guide.

There is no cost to be matched with a Guide, who participate on a volunteer basis. The organization is funded through donations and sponsorships.