Behind the ribbon: Breast cancer survivors mentor those newly diagnosed

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

By: Drew Taylor


Autherine Bowden’s smile was the first thing Clytee Drake saw when she woke up in the hospital Feb. 23, 2014.

Drake had only known Bowden a few days before undergoing surgery at DCH Regional Medical Center to remove recently diagnosed breast cancer. When she awoke, Bowden was waiting for her.

“She was my angel,” Drake said.

Drake and Bowden met as part of Behind the Ribbon, a program at DCH’s Lewis & Faye Manderson Cancer Center that pairs breast cancer survivors with those recently diagnosed with the disease as part of a mentorship.

“I had reservations at first because I had just had my cancer diagnosis and I didn’t know what was going to happen or what it entailed, but I ended up meeting Ms. Bowden,” Drake said. “She ultimately put me at ease.”

Katrina Lewis, a nurse at the cancer center and co-founder of the program, said that through Behind the Ribbon, mentors visit with newly diagnosed women before they have surgery to give them information on what to expect through their treatments.

“We try to get them not only with a survivor for a human contact, but also give them information,” Lewis said.

Lewis said she and program co-founder Ashely Stripling developed the program after hearing from volunteers that not all the patients that had been diagnosed were being referred to them. After looking into the matter, staff found that only 25 women had been referred to a volunteer in 2013 out of the nearly 250 women who are diagnosed with breast cancer every year at DCH.

“We try to get them not only with a survivor for a face-to-face contact, but we also try to get them information,” Lewis said.

The program now has more than 10 volunteers and has reached nearly 200 women with breast cancer in West Alabama.

Drake said Bowden, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, gave her one bit of advice that has stuck with her since she has been cancer-free.

“She told me to never give up,” she said.

Bowden said that when she was first diagnosed, she did not know how deal with her condition and vowed she would use her experience to help others get through breast cancer.

“When you’re first diagnosed, it’s hard just to say the word ‘cancer,’” Bowden said. “You have to be there to remove the fear from them.”

For Bowden, she always brings the same thing with her every time she meets with someone diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I always go in there with a smile,” Bowden said.

What was meant as just a preliminary meeting has turned into a budding friendship between Drake and Bowden, who stay in touch and talk once or twice a week.

“It just keeps you motivated and it lets you know that if she can survive 10 years, I can survive 10 years or more,” she said. “It’s a motivation to know that someone else is looking out for your best interest that is genuinely concerned about how you are doing, whether it is physically, emotionally or spiritually.”

Now, Drake will become a Behind the Ribbon mentor. She recently completed training and will soon begin shadowing other mentors to learn about how to help others.

“I’m overwhelmed and excited that they would think so much of me to ask me to be a part of helping others,” she said.

The program is funded through donations to the DCH Breast Cancer Fund.

“These are human beings that need help and need each other and because we have been able to put program together, we’ve been able to make a difference in the lives of other people and will continue to do so,” said Casey Johnson, director of the DCH Foundation.

An estimated 3,960 women in Alabama will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, according to the American Cancer Society. Across the country, about 246,660 new cases will be diagnosed in that time.

For more information on the program, contact Ashley Stripling at (205) 759-7877 or visit the DCH Foundation’s Facebook page.