When Helen Calvit found out she had breast cancer, she was alone.
But when it came to fighting the disease, she was fortunate enough to have the support of her partner and mother.
In 2006, Calvit underwent a routine mammogram. Calvit, 58, a special agent with the federal Department of Customs and Border Protection, had led a healthy life so she didn’t expect any surprises.
“I was 50 years old and had never been to an emergency room,” Calvit said.
When her doctor told her the news, Calvit was alone and afraid. She walked out of the clinic, leaned against a garbage can and started crying. She immediately turned to her partner, Rhonda Wardlaw, and her mother to get her through the treatment, which included a mastectomy of her right breast and about six reconstructive surgeries.
“Having my partner and my mother through everything, I just felt that I was extremely fortunate,” she said.
But not all lesbian women have someone to be there for them.
Nan Van Den Bergh, a professor at FIU’s School of Social Work, recognized there was a void in the social support for many lesbian women, who often are estranged from their families because of their sexual orientation. Bergh, 66, is a breast cancer survivor herself; she is also lesbian. To fill the gap, Bergh created a one-to-one buddy group called the Rainbow Survivor Network, where lesbian, bisexual or transgender women who are newly diagnosed with cancer can be paired up with a survivor so she doesn’t have to go through the experience alone.
“Lesbians are more likely to get their cancer support from a friend than family,” said Van Den Bergh.
Van Den Bergh, the founder of Area Resources and Referral Organization for Women (ARROW), noticed a need for a support system where LBT women can speak with other LBT women about their experience with cancer.
“People are most comfortable with their own kind, because then you don’t have to edit what you’re saying,” Van Den Bergh said.
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