If you are a lesbian, bisexual, or transgender woman who has been diagnosed with cancer, you can now turn to the Rainbow Survivor Network for one-on-one peer support.
Established in early 2014 by South Florida nonprofit ARROW, this network connects newly diagnosed LBT cancer survivors with current LBT cancer survivors.
According to the American Cancer Society, lesbians and bisexual women have higher rates of breast cancer than heterosexual women. ACS also reports that transgender individuals confront access to care disparities due to “past negative experiences and mistrust of the medical establishment.”
Nan Van Den Bergh is the founder of ARROW and a professor at Florida International University’s School of Social Work. Also a breast cancer survivor and lesbian, Van Den Bergh states that the Rainbow Survivor Network provides a way for LBT women to speak “with someone who not only ‘has been there…’ but who would be ‘safe’ in terms of acceptance.”
ARROW trains current LBT cancer survivors to be mentors (or Rainbow Buddies) who are aware of confidentiality, handling risks, active listening, and boundaries.
Newly diagnosed cancer survivors can call ARROW to complete a confidential questionnaire. The Rainbow Survivor Network considers the type of cancer, treatment, and specific interests of mentees to match them with a mentor. For instance, a mentee who is a parent may prefer a Rainbow Buddy who is also a parent.
Van Den Bergh shares how mentors “wished they could have had a Rainbow Buddy to talk with after their diagnosis, even those who had support from a partner, family and friends.”
Debora McDonough, 59, of Dania Beach, was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago. Although her family did not live nearby, they visited after McDonough’s bi-lateral mastectomy. However, she also relied on “a wonderful support system of friends” and experienced an excellent recovery.
As a Rainbow Buddy, McDonough offers hope to newly diagnosed women: “I am here to listen to their concerns and share what I have experienced.”
Yvonne Rohrbacher, 55, of Fort Lauderdale is an “almost five years” breast cancer survivor.
Same as McDonough, Rohrbacher’s “birth family” was supportive, but they did not live in South Florida. Her support came from her partner and friends.
As a “long-time community involved lesbian,” Rohrbacher realizes some lesbian cancer survivors may be less supported because they lost their families of origin when they first came out.
“Sharing the research, efforts, and experiences with others who are going through the same illness really appeals to my heart,” says Rohrbacher.
One of the youngest Rainbow Buddies, Jamie Bendola, 29, lives in Miami Beach. At the age of 25, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“All my friends were happy, healthy, and living life. I was very much alone in that aspect.”
Bendola adds “everyone's experience with cancer is different. There is no right or wrong way to handle it…Everyone is not going to have a positive attitude. It sucks! ‘You're going to be fine’ gets annoying to hear unless it’s from your oncologist.”
As far as what the Rainbow Survivor Network offers, Bendola reflects: “There's no judgment with a buddy.”
For information about the Rainbow Survivor Network, contact
ARROW (Area Resource and Referral Organization for Women )
P.O. Box 814986
Hollywood, FL 33081