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Community Highlights: Meet Jan Middleton of Pink Ribbon Girls

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jan Middleton.  

Hi Jan, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstories.
In September of 2007, our family was settling into life in Cincinnati. We had recently relocated from Georgia for my job in the lighting and electrical industry. On a beautiful September morning, I went for a mammogram due to breast pain. I wasn’t nervous because I was 39 years old and I had just had a clean mammogram 9 months earlier. My mom had been diagnosed in 2001 and had mentioned that she had pain in her breast and that is why I decided not to wait until January for the mammogram. When the radiologist showed me my mammogram later that morning my world came crashing down when he said “I think you should see a surgeon immediately. I think what we are seeing on your images is breast cancer.” I began to cry and then I thought I was going to pass out. How could this be happening? Was I going to die? Would I be able to watch my kids who were just 4 and 11 grow up? I was terrified! 

Later that day a biopsy confirmed that it was cancer. It was later determined that it was Stage I ER/PR/HER2+. The next few weeks were filled with appointments, tests, and most of all the fear of the unknown. Over the next 18 months, I did my best to manage my new job while being a wife and mom all while having a double mastectomy with reconstruction, eight rounds of chemotherapy, a year of infusions of a targeted therapy specific to my type of cancer and finally surgery to have my ovaries removed. 

As word spread in our community about my diagnosis and treatment our neighbors immediately jumped into action. Home-cooked meals were delivered to our door and we had so many offers to help with the kids from rides to various activities to play dates on surgery or chemo days. Neighbors we had never met quickly became friends. We were overwhelmed by the love and support that we were shown during this time. Accepting this help wasn’t easy – I was used to being the person that was planning things like this for friends and co-workers. I made a promise to myself that someday I would find a way to “pay forward” the kindness and generosity that our family had received during one of the scariest times of our lives. 

Once I finished treatment, I started volunteering with various breast cancer nonprofits. Eventually, I found Pink Ribbon Girls and in 2012 I was invited to become a board member. In 2014 I became an employee and since then I have held various roles throughout the organization. My current role is Director of Peer Support & Education. I plan all of our virtual peer support and education events and work with our Community Engagement Coordinators in our five regions to plan in-person survivor events. I also manage a patient mentor program. Creating a safe space for survivors to connect to their peers is so important. Our events allow patients to ask any questions and share their personal experiences. It is very comforting to know that you can talk to someone that has experienced what you are going through. Being diagnosed with cancer is scary and overwhelming so having someone that really understands those fears can really make the journey a little easier. Peer support was VERY important to me when I was going through treatment and now, I consider it a gift that I get to host these events every week that positively impacts other’s cancer journeys. 

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle-free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
Deciding to leave my career in the lighting and electrical industry after 29 years was a little scary. My son was just going into his first year of college when I accepted a job with Pink Ribbon Girls. My first position here was a 20-hour/week contract position. I know that many people thought I was crazy but, in my heart, I knew this was where I was supposed to be. I knew it would not be easy for our family but I had faith that we would find a way to make it work. When I worked in the lighting and electrical industry, I could walk out of my office at 5:00 and leave my work behind. My role today requires a non-traditional schedule with many nights and weekends and you also become very attached to those you serve. Dealing with cancer every day is not easy. I do not have training in handling the mental stresses of this type of work so I do my best to pay attention to my own mental health realizing how important it is to “get away” from the job occasionally. It is heartbreaking when we lose a patient or a patient has needs beyond what we can offer. We are on this journey with them so when they receive bad news our hearts break for them and we make sure they know they are not alone. 

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your business?
PRG is here to alleviate the fear and uncertainty that breast and gynecological cancers bring to individuals and their families so No One Travels This Road Alone… 

PRG provides essential care now, including healthy meals, rides to treatment, non toxic cleaning supplies, and education and peer support. These services increase treatment compliance, nutrition, and education, creating an overall positive impact on their cancer journeys and outcomes. Instead of the challenges of daily life, PRG clients can focus on healing and their families. PRG was founded in Cincinnati during 2002 as a group offering peer support. In 2012 the organization moved to its current location in Dayton, Ohio, and began offering healthy meals, rides to treatment, and housecleaning services. PRG has been providing the same program services for a decade to clients and their families. PRG has grown to now serve Columbus, Ohio as well as St. Louis, Missouri, and the San Francisco Bay Area. As the need for PRG’s services continues to grow exponentially, the current program model will be used to expand into new regions across the United States. 

The crisis has affected us all in different ways. How has it affected you and any important lessons or epiphanies you can share with us?
I became the Director of Peer Support and Education at the end of 2019 and it was a new role at PRG. In 2019 we were not hosting any virtual peer support events but when COVID hit we had to quickly decide how we would support the peer support needs of our clients as we canceled ours in-person events. We didn’t know if anyone would be interested in participating in events on Zoom. We quickly realized that patients were very open to this concept. We started scheduling evening and lunchtime events. One pleasant surprise is that we started reaching patients beyond our five Pink Ribbon Girls regions. Our motto is any breast or gynecological patient/survivor is welcome to attend our events and now we have attendees from all over the US and from as far away as England. Cancer treatment can feel very isolating. I love that we now have a way to connect with patients no matter where they live and give them a safe space to connect with their peers. I believe we will always have a virtual component to our peer support offering. Another thing we realized is not everyone can travel to a peer support event or they simply might not feel like driving to an event. Virtual peer support allows them to join from the comfort of their home. We have had many participants join from the comfort of their bed when they are not feeling well…it brings me joy to know that we make it easy for them to feel “connected” to their peers when they need it the most. 

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