By Lori Berkey, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – At age 34, Linda Halloran received the terrifying news she had breast cancer. She mustered the courage to step into a supporroup, but felt deflated as it was “all about people dying and not about people living.” She left the group and never returned.
Five years later, she sought a connection with other women sharing her experience, and tried a different group. The new group was just what she hoped for. It was weekly and daytime, and worked for her, but she noticed it was tough for some who had to return to work right after.
Holloran thought a monthly, evening group was needed. In 2010, she and another member founded “The Breast Friends Connection,” which meets at Halloran’s “home-church,” Liberty Church in Shrewsbury.
Tina Shenko, a close friend of Halloran’s from the weekly group, participated in Breast Friends Connection since its outset. When Halloran’s co-facilitator recently resigned her position, Shenko stepped up. She said it was a natural progression for her to fill the vacancy.
“I think it was really important for me, when I was first diagnosed, to see other survivors,” Shenko said. “It was a death sentence to me, and when I met people who were on the other side of it, it gave me hope.”
The group’s mission is bringing women together in their journey with breast cancer.
“Breast cancer affects your feeling of being a woman and the way you feel about your body,” Halloran said. “That’s a big journey for women, and just trying to cope with their new normal body is a lot.”
Halloran and her co-facilitator did the legwork to establish official nonprofit status, as well as fundraising. According to Halloran, 100 percent of funds raised go toward helping local women with such needs as gas cards to get to treatment, cleaning services and food.
Most weeks, sessions are split between a period of sharing feelings, listening and support, and a presentation by a guest speaker or informational presentation. Some weeks, they sense women need more time for sharing, so they adapt.
“Maybe there’s a hardship going on in the group; the sad part is that people die,” Shenko added. “We are survivors and we’re very sensitive to what their other needs are.”
Participation varies with both longtime regulars and newcomers. Fifteen to 20 typically attend, with a total of about 70 on their email list.
“Last month we saw a girl we hadn’t seen in seven months,” Halloran said. “They know this is a home they can come back to whenever they want.”
Once, the meeting was canceled because of an ice storm, but that didn’t stop two members from finding the support they needed.
“Two ladies still came and they went and had coffee,” Halloran said. “They had never met, but they were both here for the meeting. It was one of the women’s first time and the other woman just took her under her wing.”
After experiencing that first group that focused on dying, Halloran discovered “people do survive this.” She gained hope that maybe she would see her kids graduate from high school.
“Now I have a daughter in college,” Halloran said. “I made it through one graduation and the next one is in May, so I’m going to make it. Next year, in June, I turn 50. In July I’m a 15-year cancer survivor. Fifty and fabulous, that’s where I’m at.”
Shenko is doing well, too.
Halloran also provides support through her Shrewsbury-based salon business, Hair Innovations, where she shaves women’s heads for free when they need it.
For more information, contact Halloran at 508-826-4511 or Shenko at 508-612-5865. Donations for The Best Friends Connection can be mailed to: The Breast Friends Connection c/o Linda Halloran, 115 Millbury Road, Oxford, MA 01540.