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Breast Cancer Support Group Celebrates 20 Years of Service at UAB

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Individuals who are diagnosed with cancer can benefit from compassion and understanding shown by hospital volunteers. Patients at UAB Medicine's Breast Health Center (BHC) who experience such comfort from a stranger may suspect an angel is in their presence. In one sense, they would be correct. The Angel Squad is a group of dedicated volunteers who provide hope, comfort, and compassionate care to breast cancer patients at UAB. The group has been earning its wings since March of 2000.

The Angel Squad, working in conjunction with UAB Medicine Volunteer Services, is available to help orientate and comfort patients immediately after diagnosis. Volunteers offer information, words of empathy and experience, and gift bags that the squad creates and individualizes for each patient. Their goal for every patient is to make the cancer journey a little less daunting right from the day of diagnosis.

In 2019, the Angel Squad provided over 1,050 hours of in-clinic patient care by visiting with patients, escorting patients into the clinics, providing light snacks, and locating and communicating information to patients’ families when requested. Volunteers also work with the BHC staff by creating packets of information for patients and performing other administrative activities as needed. The group distributes to patients about 600 pink blankets, custom-made pillows, and hand-selected team care tote bags per year.

Angel Squad co-presidents Connie Bowers and Sheila Smith understand the importance of providing support at such a time.

“Part of the comfort our volunteers provide is about a patient’s physical needs,” Bowers says. “The blankets and pillows and snacks are always greatly appreciated. But we also offer encouragement and information that might help them more easily prepare for their journey. Most important, sometimes we are there just to listen.”

Smith agrees that the volunteers can make the initial adjustment less difficult for patients and their families.

“It’s a time of tremendous emotion,” Smith says. “Anyone who’s been through it can tell you that, and many members of the Angel Squad who are breast cancer survivors themselves can offer real empathy. So our main message to the patient, just by being there that first day, is that they are not alone.”

Squad Formation

The Angel Squad began organizing in 1998, when breast cancer patient Jan Bolla (described as a “dynamo” by other volunteers) became convinced

that there needed to be some support for women while they were in the clinic. There were some programs already in place serving Birmingham and the metro area, but after talking with community leaders, Bolla and others concluded it was more practical to focus solely on UAB patients. After undergoing lumpectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy, she worked with UAB Medicine oncology nurse Madeline Harris and patient coordinator Rita Faust to establish the Angel Squad.

The group had its first official meeting with 22 members in March of 2000. Bolla was the group’s president for a while before being diagnosed with bone cancer, at which time she took a role as the Angel Squad chaplain. The group raised funds through a partnership with B’ham restaurant Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, with a Breast Cancer Month event and gift certificate sales.

Today Jim ‘N Nick’s gift card sales, along with other local fundraising efforts, provide resources for the Angel Squad. Each October the group partners with Jim ‘N Nick’s to raise breast cancer awareness. Angels are present on a designated day of that month in all local Jim ‘N Nick’s locations to distribute educational pamphlets, and to hand out pink bracelets, nail files, etc., that encourage individuals to practice breast self-awareness and schedule annual mammograms. The event receives support from the UAB staff, the UAB Hospital Auxiliary, and other community partners.

Always a Blessing

At the Angel Squad’s quarterly meeting this past March, the group celebrated two decades of service to breast cancer patients at UAB. They also recognized volunteer Doris Snider, who was named the Angel Squad’s 2019 volunteer of the year.

A breast cancer survivor herself, Snider has been a member of the Angel Squad since 2010. She heads up the group of talented seamstresses who make the heart-shaped comfort pillows. Completely surprised by this honor and filled with emotion, Snider spoke about what lies at the heart of the Angel Squad mission.

“I have been blessed in so many ways by being a member of this group,” Snider says. “We are like family. And we’ve all learned the roles of being a survivor and sharing our support with other survivors. We are trying to be a blessing to others and those who need it most, but the blessing always comes back to us.”