Margery Wiesenthal (pictured above with her daughter, Linda) was diagnosed with breast cancer at the young age of 29. She was a mother of three young children and the wife of a rising attorney when she was diagnosed. What sets her apart from others is that she was diagnosed in the 1960s when cancer was a subject that people did not discuss, especially with strangers.
Most women underwent treatment for breast cancer in silence, with little support from family, friends, or the community. But, once Margery was done with surgery, she bravely shared her experience with others to help them get through diagnosis and treatment. Word spread in her community and soon she had people calling to ask if she would speak with people they knew who were recently diagnosed.
Margery enjoyed speaking with others who were battling the disease. "I showed them that life, indeed, goes on, that you must live it, appreciate it, and move on" she recalls.
Not long after Margery started to speak to others, a friend saw an advertisement in the paper, no bigger than a postage stamp, asking for volunteers to join an American Cancer Society program that matched breast cancer survivors with newly diagnosed patients to provide them support.
The program, called Reach To Recovery, was the brainstorm of breast cancer survivor and advocate Terese Lasser. Margery and Terese shared the same desire, to establish a support program for women undergoing mastectomy. "I was exceedingly shy most of my life, but I made myself get all dressed up and go into that ACS office," Margery says. She even remembers what she wore that day, right down to a fancy black hat. Margery got the volunteer role and went to work breaking down barriers, including the belief that cancer was a death sentence.
Margery was asked to talk to patients as well as physicians and nurses. "My job at the very beginning was introducing doctors, and especially nurses, to what Reach To Recovery was and why it was needed," she explains. "We needed to get them on board, so they would sign a paper to allow us to visit their patients."
The mostly male doctors were reluctant at first, but Margery was able to get them to understand that the volunteers were well-trained and knew what to say and, more importantly, what not to say. She even shared with them the packet of information and temporary prosthesis they gave to patients.
"I remember showing one doctor a prosthesis and he responded by saying he told his patients to stuff the empty side of their bra with their panty hose," she says. "I told him how very cold and wrong he was."
It wasn't long before medical professionals listened to Margery and others, and referrals started to come into ACS for visits.
Margery was asked to join the National Board of Directors of the American Cancer Society in the late 70s, when there were only two other women on the Board, both significantly older than she was.
Margery remembers her decades of volunteering for ACS fondly. "ACS would be contacted by various women's groups, governments, and doctors, both within the United States and internationally, and then ACS would send me to educate them about the work of Reach To Recovery and how to set up a program locally," she says. "ACS gave me a platform to use my voice to help others."
Now in her 80s and a grandmother of eight, Margery is still sharp and energetic and happy to see the program continue to thrive. Her daughter, Linda Alderman,), recently contacted the American Cancer Society about volunteering herself. She is currently completing training to be a Reach To Recovery visitor, and has signed up to be an advocate with ACS CAN. She is eager to give back through both roles.
This year marks the program’s 50th anniversary with the American Cancer Society. Terese Lasser, whose obituary in The New York Times is pictured in the smaller image, established 300 chapters in the U.S. and abroad by the time Reach To Recovery was adopted by the American Cancer Society in 1969. In its early years, Reach To Recovery focused on visits to hospitalized patients, most of whom had undergone mastectomies. Today, Reach volunteers communicate with patients over the telephone, face-to-face, or online, and provide information, resource referrals, and individual support.
In 2017, close to 3,000 Reach To Recovery volunteers provided more than 9,000 visits. Since 1969, more than 1.5 million people have received information and support from the Reach To Recovery program.