Dana-Farber’s Soulmates Program Gives Breast Cancer Patients Emotional Support

The pilot program pairs breast cancer patients with survivors who serve as peer mentors.

Dana-Farber Soulmates

Peters, left, and Angiolillo, right. Photo provided to bostonmagazine.com

Noel Peters is many things to Melissa Angiolillo: a mentor, a support system, and, most importantly, a friend. But the two women never would have met without Soulmates, a unique program being piloted by Dana-Farber Cancer Institute that pairs people currently undergoing breast cancer treatment with a peer who has been through the process before.

“I have to say, we’re really, truly soulmates,” says Peters, 42, who has been Angiolillo’s mentor since February and works in research administration at Harvard Medical School. “It was instantly like we knew each other forever. There are things I can say to Melissa that I just know she understands.”

That relationship perfectly captures the goal of the Soulmates program, which has been running since November 2014 and is the only one of its kind in the area. “For so many women with breast cancers, receiving the initial diagnosis can be so overwhelming,” says Nancy Poorvu, the program’s director and a breast cancer survivor herself. “[We wanted] to ensure these patients receive mental and emotional care in addition to medical care.”

For Angiolillo, 35, that means talking to someone who knows exactly what she’s going through, from what it’s like to be a working mom enduring cancer treatment to finding humor in a dark situation. “You can talk about it all you want to people who haven’t been through the same experience as you, and it’s really not as helpful as talking to someone who has shared a similar experience,” Angiolillo says. “I don’t know how I would have gotten through treatment without her. It’s been a tremendous help, mentally.”

In addition to one-on-one meetings, Soulmates also hosts monthly dinners that include workshops, speakers, and the opportunity to meet more people who intimately understand the experience of battling breast cancer. “Inevitably, at the end of these dinners, shirts are flying up, everybody’s looking at everybody’s reconstruction,” Poorvu says with a chuckle.

So far, Soulmates has paired 44 recently diagnosed women with mentors, and Poorvu says the program will hopefully secure the donations necessary to grow larger, as well as a bigger group of mentors. (Any breast cancer survivor at least two years post-diagnosis can become a mentor, regardless of where he or she was treated.) “The peer mentors say, ‘I’m getting as much from this as my peer is,'” Poorvu says. “They all feel that, on some deep level, this is healing them as much as it is the peer.”

That’s a sentiment Angiolillo shares. Though she is still undergoing treatment, the mother of three says she hopes to someday become a mentor herself.

“If I could ever do for one other woman what Noel has done for me,” she says, “I will feel like my time here has been worth it, and I’ll have done what I was meant to do.”