Support for mastectomy patients

A very personal outreach that can make a difference right away. We provide information and supplies to aid recovery, and also provide a resource for surgeons and nurses to improve communication with patients about the challenges of major surgery.

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Founder’s Story

Rosa Salter Rodriguez
The Journal Gazette

 

Survivor’s non-profit delivers special post-mastectomy bags

Kristina Alderdice

“It’s like a ministry,” Meredyth Nott says of the bag she received after her mastectomies.

Kristina Alderdice makes a “Hope in a Handbag” delivery to Tiffany Bennett at Dr. Alan Yahanda’s office. Alderdice has provided more than 500 bags since 2007.

“Hope in a Handbag” is filled with supplies for mastectomy patients, such as a man’s undershirt and a pillow.

Kristina Alderdice and her mother, Ellen Graham, are laughing as they tug on the heavy glass doors of Indiana Surgical Specialists’ office in the Parkview Cancer Center in Fort Wayne.

Pushing wheelchairs packed with plastic-wrapped canvas tote bags stuffed to the gills, they gesture “after you” to each other until licensed practical nurse Tiffany Bennett rushes to their rescue and holds the door open.

Nurses at the practice sometimes joke that, when the women arrive, it seems like Christmas – at least for the practice’s mastectomy patients.

Alderdice, a breast cancer survivor, has turned her experience with a double mastectomy at the age of 33 into a service aimed at bringing comfort to others facing a similar diagnosis.

In 2007, the Fort Wayne mother of two founded a non-profit organization now called Hope in a Handbag. It provides information and post-surgery supplies to those facing the loss of a breast.

Alderdice says the bags contain what she wished she’d had after having surgery for an aggressive form of breast cancer in 2006.

“For me, everything happened very fast,” says Alderdice, now 36. “It’s kind of a shock waking up after surgery with these tubes hanging off you. I was so not prepared.”

The items Alderdice includes might seem strange to anyone who hasn’t had breast surgery.

Like a man’s sleeveless white cotton undershirt. It’s handy, Alderdice says, because its low armholes and stretchy material mean a patient can step into it instead of having to perform the nearly impossible task of raising her arms over her head or wiggling them into sleeves.

“You’re so sore after surgery,” Alderdice says. Then there’s a squishy square pillow. It’s good in the first days of recovery for cradling an arm with an intravenous line in it, she says. Later, the pillow can be placed between a seat-belt shoulder strap and the chest to cushion and protect healing scars.

Alderdice says she was shocked when she learned from a local radio talk show that a woman had been given a traffic ticket for not wearing her seat belt shortly after a mastectomy.

The bag also includes surgical gauze pads of a size not readily found in drugstores and tape to go with them, disposable wipes and a pink ribbon to hold up surgical drainage paraphernalia. There’s also a covered drinking cup, lip balm, tissue, a nail file, hard candy and stationery and a pen for journaling.
Meredyth Nott, 75,(left) of Fort Wayne, says the bag was helpful. Nott is recovering from a double mastectomy in January and a second surgery last month to drain fluid from her chest.

“The famous men’s undershirt!” she exclaims when asked what she used most.

“It was, first of all, something to put on,” she says, adding: “I came home with drain tubes, and you could pin them to the shirt. And it helped with changing bandages. Well, the nurse changed them, but I think it helped her. And I liked the little note that said when you were finished using it you could throw it away and not feel guilty.”

But Nott says the real blessing of the bag was knowing someone had thought of someone in her circumstances.

“It was so personal. To think that somebody did that, took the time to make all those things and put them together; … it’s like a ministry,” she says.

Alderdice says Hope in a Handbag wasn’t entirely her idea. It was founded with the help of The Necessities Bag, a non-profit organization based in Ridgefield, Conn., started by breast cancer survivor Maureen Lutz. That group is now starting affiliates across the country.

Alderdice says she is working to expand the local program to cover Indiana, northwest Ohio and southern Michigan.

In a little less than two years, she says, the program has provided more than 500 bags to 50 doctors’ offices, hospitals and women’s health programs in 10 counties.

The bags and their supplies cost about $50 each. The program is funded with donations and a grant from the Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

Hope in a Handbag started under the Necessities Bag name in September 2007 with a donation from Alderdice’s father, the Rev. Vernon Graham, retired executive pastor of Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County.

Vernon Graham donated a $17,300 cash honorarium to use as seed money and arranged to have Necessities Bag operate as a ministry of Associated Churches until it became a free-standing, tax-exempt non-profit this year.

The startup also got a little push from her mother, Ellen Graham, who realized Alderdice was having a hard time healing from both the cancer and a post-surgery divorce. Ellen Graham helps with stuffing bags and delivering them.

The next step might be a bag tailored to men. Bennett says a couple of male breast cancer patients were happy to receive the bags despite their feminine flair.

Alderdice was a stay-at-home mom doing the dinner dishes when, she says, she noticed “a nagging pain” high on her chest wall, near her right armpit. She asked her husband to massage the area later that day, and he grew concerned enough to get her to go to a doctor.

Her physician didn’t seem overly concerned but did a biopsy. It not only came back cancer but of a kind and in a spot that wouldn’t yield to a simple lumpectomy. Alderdice was later told she should have both breasts and about nine lymph nodes removed.

She would also need both chemotherapy and radiation and wouldn’t be a candidate for reconstruction.

Ironically, Alderdice was still too young then to have a screening mammogram. The cancer detection procedure is not generally recommended until a woman reaches 35.

“I didn’t believe it pretty much,” she says of the diagnosis. “I was never a sick person. It was like, ‘Huh? I don’t really have time for this.’

“I remember not crying. I was just like, ‘OK.’ But my family was very upset.”

Her time to become emotional came later when her husband said he’d been so affected by her cancer he didn’t want to stay married to her. She says it was “devastating” and adds she’s since learned it’s not unusual for marriages of breast cancer patients not to survive.

When her mother suggested the idea of a breast cancer ministry, Alderdice was skeptical. She works in accounting at a brokerage firm in addition to caring for her daughter Alexandria, 8, and son Charles, 5.

She’d been raised in a family that valued service to others, but she says with a laugh, “I was always the rebellious child.”

“I said, ‘Oh, Mom, I can’t do anything like that,’ ” she says. But as she got into the process, she became much more comfortable with reaching out to others – just as she’s become more comfortable facing life with what she calls “my war scars” on her chest.

“It actually was a way to give back and thank people who were so generous to me. I did it almost for a healing thing,” Alderdice says. “It became a healing thing for me.”

For more information about the program, call Kristina Alderdice at 416-0686.