Judy Kalb was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998.
The suburban Boynton Beach resident recovered only to see the cancer return in 2000. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy and treated with chemotherapy.
Kalb had strong support from family and friends, but no one she could talk to with first-hand experience about the harrowing process.
“It was very difficult back then,” said Kalb, 74. “There were no groups.”
Kalb is now helping change that. She is one of about 30 survivors who have received training through the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center to serve as mentors to the hospital’s breast cancer patients.
Alliances between women battling the disease have long existed, but Sylvester’s program provides an official channel for patients looking to speak with someone with a similar experience.
“The first time someone is confronted with a breast cancer diagnosis, they question their own mortality,” said Teresa Neira, program director of social services at Sylvester. “For a person to see an example of a hopeful outcome, someone who survived it, is very important.”
Kalb, who has three children with her husband Cliff and seven grand children, was working as an elementary school science and math teacher in Long Island, N.Y. when cancer was first discovered in her breast in 1998.
She had a lumpectomy and radiation treatment. Two years later, the cancer was back.
Kalb said that after her double mastectomy, the only counseling service offered at her hospital was an “initial explanation of what was happening” that appeared more geared toward providing coping skills for the male partner, and not the patient.
In 2003, Kalb and her husband moved to the Valencia Reserve community in suburban Boynton where she formed a chapter of Pap Corps Partners, a fund-raising organization for cancer research.
She also worked in an unofficial mentoring capacity with a half-dozen women battling breast cancer, taking them to buy wigs or tagging along for doctor appointments or whatever else was needed to “get them through a very awful time” in their lives.
“Breast cancer today isn’t what it was 30, 40 years ago,” Kalb said. “There’s treatment and in many cases, it’s curable. But when you hear that word cancer, you think it’s a death sentence. it’s a very, very difficult word to swallow.”
Kalb recently took a two-hour training course to prepare for the mentor program. She is waiting to be matched with a patient this month.
Virtually all of the mentors in the program, launched in December, are former Sylvester patients. Kalb is an exception.
“For the mentors, they’ve been through that road and this is a chance to give back to another woman who is feeling as scared as they were, or has as many questions as they had,” Neira said.
Kalb said the most important quality for a mentor is to be a “listener.”
That’s a skill she honed as a school teacher for 23 years. Her approach to teaching, Kalb said, was to give her students a “nurturing feeling” and lend an empathetic ear.
“For me, doing this is just an extension of who I am,” she said. “I’m a people person and if I can help anybody in any way, I try to do that.”