When Vicky Cooke was diagnosed with breast cancer 20 years ago, the disease had to take its place in line.
It was only three weeks before her oldest daughter's Naval Academy wedding, her middle daughter was in college, her youngest in high school and her husband was out of work. She had a wedding to plan and family to care for, she simply couldn't drop everything because of her diagnosis, she explained.
"There was a lot going on in my life at the time and I sort of treated breast cancer as get at the back of the line," Cooke said. "That probably helped me as I did what I had to go and got through it."
After a lumpectomy, six weeks of radiation, half a dozen sessions of chemotherapy and diligently following up with doctor visits and medication, Cooke is now a breast cancer survivor who has never had a recurrence.
There were no available peers to relate to at the time of her diagnosis, she said, and no support groups since the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition was only a fledgling group of volunteers.
"There were no programs, no Internet. All I could rely on was my doctor's good advice," Cooke said. "There was so much going on in the family to get me through. That's the thing about breast cancer. You don't take time out in your life for breast cancer. Breast cancer happens on top of everything else."
She said it may have been foolish for her to go to her early morning radiation appointments and then go right to work, but she dealt with the disease by dealing with life first.
"I was not going to become breast cancer," she said. "I respect each woman and how she handles the disease. It's important that it doesn't become you."
Two years after her diagnosis, Cooke began volunteering with Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition, an organization focused on ending breast cancer and providing support to those dealing with the disease throughout Delaware.
In 2000, after five years of volunteer work with DBCC, Cooke became the organization's first executive director, and has seen the DBCC grow from a grassroots group of dedicated women to a fully-staffed organization with an operating budget of $1.6 million.
With hundreds of volunteers, DBCC is able to serve Delaware's three counties and provides education, counseling and programs to women and men throughout the state.
"Knowledge is power. We want to have women know all that they can know, so they can make good decisions and not have to just rely on their doctors," Cooke said. "We're making sure we have the right programs for the community. DBCC's funds stay local, and we only raise what we need."
Page 2 of 2 - Cooke said the Peer Mentor Support Program offered by DBCC provide something she did not have when she was diagnosed with breast cancer: the chance to interact with someone who understands and can relate to an individual's journey.
"It's about just giving them information or letting them connect with women who went through the same thing they're going through," Cooke said.
Sometimes the most needed support is the ability to connect with someone who can relate to what's going on in life when breast cancer comes into the picture, Cooke explained. DBCC can pair two mothers battling breast cancer, an older woman who can share tips with someone who needs to learn how to explain their diagnosis to a teenager, or maybe pair up a husband who needs to talk to another husband whose wife has been diagnosed.
"They're all pearls of wisdom," Cooke said. "It's a support system, not intended to make decisions for people, but to listen and offer advice."
And while the peer mentoring program is a huge part of what DBCC stands for, Cooke, along with DBCC staff members and peer mentors focus on gathering the most up-to-date scientific research available.
"Our programs are all scientifically-based," Cooke said. "We don't dabble in breast cancer. Our staff is involved and knowledgeable."
There are 17 part- and full-time staff members and hundreds of volunteers that follow Cooke's determination to not only inform the community about services available, but to support those in need of services, counseling, or someone to share in their journey.
"We are Delaware's most trusted resource. We're not governed by any other organizations. When something doesn't work, we can turn on a dime, sort out our issues and go in another direction," Cooke said.
"I can look in the mirror and know we do what we say we will," she continued. "We're there for the women who need us."