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Sharp Health News

Small items make a big difference for breast cancer patients

June 2, 2016

Small items make a big difference for breast cancer patients

Terry Aaron and Billie Jean Gahan are two of the volunteers who make small pillows and drainage pouches to comfort patients after breast cancer surgery.

Often, the simple things in life are the most important. For breast cancer patient Cathy Varner, two handcrafted items — a pretty lavender pouch and a small soft pillow — made all the difference in the world.

Five years ago, Varner had a bilateral mastectomy for stage 2B breast cancer. Following surgery, it was tough just finding a comfortable position to sit in or relax. And the plastic drainage bulbs placed near her incision were a particular challenge.

"Patients are often stumped about what to do with the drain bulbs and how to 'wear' them for the designated time of healing," says Donna Thompson, a breast cancer navigator at Sharp Grossmont Hospital. "The drains are long tubes with a bulb on the end, which are attached at the surgery site to collect excess fluid."

"When I started working at Sharp Grossmont in 2008, I attended a breast health navigator certification program. I got the idea to sew recovery pillows, as well as pouches that can be placed around the neck like a lanyard to hold the bulbs, and began giving them to my surgical patients," she says. "At the time, patients weren't receiving any items that might make their recovery easier."

Originally, Thompson sewed the items herself and paid for them out-of-pocket. But since 2010, the program has been funded through a grant and hospital volunteers now lovingly sew the pillows and pouches, which continue to make a positive impact in patient recovery.

"I needed the pouch immediately after surgery and then again a week after the drains were removed when one had to be reinstalled," says Varner. "The pouch made a significant difference in my comfort and my self-esteem."

"The size and location of the pouch made it relatively easy to hide the drains and made access and care of the drains convenient and easy. Plus, it gave me peace of mind that I knew the drains were safe, secure and not in danger of becoming unpinned or accidently dropping into view."

She also adds that, "The pillow was a huge help in finding — and keeping — a tolerable position. The elevation was a relief and the firmness of the pillow kept my arm in place for long periods."

Helping hands
Several hospital volunteers meet three times a month and are dedicated to sewing the pillows and pouches. Linda Van Fulpen, manager of volunteer services, says that in 2015 alone, volunteers made 200 pouches and 130 pillows.

Volunteer Billie Jean Gahan makes the pouches; Terry Aaron assists and makes the pillow inserts. "It feels good knowing our work is helping someone get better," says Aaron. The shams, which are made of plush, cozy Minky fabric, feel soft on bare skin and are sewn by Jean Nunamaker.

Because the items made a big difference in Varner's recovery, she made a financial donation for materials so other women could have them. "I wanted to pay it forward so others have the same comfort. The pillow and pouch mattered to me, and I'm certain they'll matter to others as well," she says.

It has been five years since Varner's surgery and she feels great. Still paying it forward, she advises anyone just diagnosed with breast cancer to talk to someone who has been through treatment and ask them about their journey.

"You'll likely hear things you won't read online, like once your hair starts growing, there'll come a day you feel the wind in your hair and that will be a special moment. Celebrate the successes."

For the media: To learn more about breast cancer recovery items at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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