Buddy System Proof: 'You're Not Alone'

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With a common cause and a common pain, Jean Roberts (left) and Ann Kilman became close friends. Soon after Jean was diagnosed with breast cancer, her doctor introduced her to Ann, who had gone through the traumatic experience.
Ann Kilman and Jean Roberts became fast friends in a flash. Literally.

Both happened to be visiting the office of a plastic surgeon, Dr. David Whiteman, in May of last year. Kilrnan had already stumbled through the worry, fear and depression that often comes with a breast cancer diagnosis and was in for a postoperative appointment. Roberts had just received a cancer diagnosis, and her journey was beginning.

Whiteman sensed the two women might hit it off. So the young doctor asked Roberts if she was interested in talking to a woman who’d been through breast surgery — someone who could, and would, tell it like it is.

“Well, I really didn’t want to see her right then and there,” Roberts recalls. “It was the first time I was talking about the surgery, and I didn’t have the nerve to ask what I really wanted to ask.”
But Whiteman knew what was going through Roberts’ mind. He introduced her to Kilman and left the room. Kilman took charge.

“I don’t know what possessed me,” she says, “but I just came out and asked her: ‘Do you want to know what you’ll look like after surgery?’ I’m a longtime teacher, so I said, ‘Lets just do a little show and tell.’ And I just hiked up my shirt and flashed her.” In that moment, Whiteman informally initiated an innovative, and successful, cancer support group.

The connections, and friendships, that have emerged from Whiteman’s pairings have lasted for years. He and his patients are so taken with the buddy system that they may try to sway other local breast surgeons to try it.

“It’s actually amazing what it’s become,” says Whiteman, who opened his practice eight years ago. “Ten of the women formed their own ‘cronies’ group, and many want to be paired up with more new patients. They’re also talking about putting together a resource library on breast cancer at the medical center.”

Despite a two-decade age difference – Kilman is 51 and Roberts is 70— they’ve maintained a close bond over the past 18 months. Kilman came bearing watermelon and ice cream when that was all Roberts could manage after she underwent a modified mastectomy and chemotherapy. Kilman also went to Rich’s and bought flannel sheets when Roberts told her the chemo made her shiver all night.

Now recovered and working part time at a library, Roberts often is Kilman’s rock. She’s there on the other end of the phone when Kilman just needs to let loose and cry. Or to commiserate over a “girl’s-only” lunch when Kilman wants to talk about things she knows Roberts also experiences: numbness in the hands lingering since surgery or the sudden heaviness of the breast implants.

“Even though I have a very loving husband and many supportive friends, there’s some things they just won’t understand,” says Kilman, a sixth grade math teacher and mother of two adult children. “If I feel like crying, she lets me cry. I tell Jean things I never tell another human being I just love her.”