Forging on

Survivorship program offers long-term services for breast cancer patients

Written by Emily Sparacino

Photo Contributed

“Why Forge?”

This short question opens a door for people like Rebecca Di Piazza to talk about a new resource available for breast cancer patients, survivors and their families.

As project director of Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center, and a breast cancer survivor in her own right, Di Piazza has a list of reasons the word “forge” is special to her.

“There is no other program in the country where you have competing health systems working together to build a patient-centered program,” she said. “It’s really remarkable. We like to believe we have some of the brightest minds in healthcare in Birmingham that are building and developing this program.”

A group of volunteers with Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center completes a training exercise.

A group of volunteers with Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center completes a training exercise.

The initiative – a project Di Piazza and many others in healthcare have been working on for years – was developed and supported by Brookwood Baptist Health, Grandview Medical Center, St. Vincent’s Health System, UAB Medicine, UAB School of Nursing and the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham.

“We have executive leadership from all four health systems in Birmingham,” Di Piazza said. “They meet once a month. They have been key to building our strategic plan. We as a staff are here to execute what they have developed and what we have learned from our community profile.”

About four months ago, the Breast Cancer Survivorship Rehabilitation Initiative unveiled Forge as the official name of the community-based therapeutic program, “chosen to represent and embody the spirit of survivorship and the personal triumph over cancer.”

The program’s focus is on providing holistic and supportive services for women and their families coping with breast cancer and its aftermath.

Forge launched in May and serves Shelby, Jefferson, Blount, St. Clair and Walker counties.

The five-county area holds a population of 2,500 breast cancer survivors, according to Di Piazza.

In 2014, the Women’s Breast Health Fund of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham awarded a $287,000 grant for the Breast Cancer Survivorship Rehabilitation Initiative, an entity focused on supporting people transitioning from being cancer patients to cancer survivors.

St. Vincent’s is the fiscal agent for Forge, Di Piazza said.

Forge’s services include advocates and survivor peer mentors (trained volunteers), a 24-7 telephone support line, a repository of community resources, support groups, counseling services through OASIS Counseling for Women and Children, and health care professional renewal days.

“We have an active base of volunteers from Shelby County,” Di Piazza said. “We have a really great volunteer group.”

One of the gaps Forge seeks to fill is the gap in long-term services for cancer survivors.

“From the point of diagnosis to the end of life, that is what we’re set up to do,” Di Piazza said. “This program is set up to meet the needs of long-term survivorship.”

One in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer.

Men are not completely exempt, either.

The lifetime risk of getting breast cancer is about 1 in 1,000 in U.S. men, according to the American Cancer Society, and about 1 percent of all breast cancer cases occur in men.

With early detection and improved treatment choices comes a higher survival rate.

“As treatments get better, we have more survivors than we’ve ever had, and that’s what Forge is all about: serving the population after breast cancer and treatments,” she said. “We’re in it for the long haul. This program is not going to go away.”

Breast cancer survivor and Forge mentor Betty Shivers noted how important the services Forge offers are to people with limited access to healthcare.

“It’s a huge service to be able to provide,” Shivers said. “‘Forge ahead,’ the whole concept, paints the picture that life is going to move on, and you’re going to be able to get to a better place.”

Forge also provides support for co-survivors, who are family members or others who serve as caregivers for cancer patients.

“There’s a lot of sacrifice that takes place to care for somebody going through this,” Di Piazza said. “We want the community to be aware we’re out here. No matter how small the barrier may seem, we can help a family work through challenges.”

Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center is actively recruiting volunteers and clients.

For more information about Forge, visit forgeon.org, call 1-800-811-8925 or email info@forgeon.org.

“I think mainly we need our community to know this is out there,” Di Piazza said. “We want to touch as many lives as possible.”