No pity, no opinions, just an empathetic ear from the ‘befriending’ volunteers at Cancer Connection in Northampton

Last modified: Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When Sarah Malzone of Northampton was being treated for breast cancer in 2009, she was caring for her toddler daughter, balding and feeling isolated. While she felt lucky to have people in her life who loved and supported her, what she found most helpful was talking with those who didn’t pity or fear her or try to give her advice.

“I was most comfortable with those who listened and who seemed to have a relaxed interest in how I was doing,” Malzone said.

This is why Malzone, 39, now free of the disease, volunteers with Cancer Connection’s Befriending Volunteer Program, lending an empathetic ear to people living with cancer who call or visit the center’s headquarters on Locust Street in Northampton.

Cancer Connection, a nonprofit organization, was founded in 1999 to provide a peaceful and judgment-free community to assist people in coping with the stress and anxiety that come with a cancer diagnosis. It also offers patients and their families access to integrative therapies such as reiki, acupuncture and massage, and runs support groups and exercise, creative arts and mindfulness classes, all free of charge.

Malzone didn’t live in the Valley while undergoing cancer treatment and so she didn’t have access to Cancer Connection. But its programs, she said, particularly the befriender effort, provide what she longed for — companions willing to listen without being patronizing or opinionated.

“It feels really good to listen to people because each person that comes into Cancer Connection is not a statistic.” She said that she likes helping people remember that they are more than just cancer patients.

The befriending program, one of Cancer Connection’s newest offerings, provides training to volunteers like Malzone in guiding others in making decisions throughout treatment and in finding ways to stay calm and avoid having their illness always be the focus of their lives.

There is no set number of hours the volunteers must devote to the program; they serve whenever they can, working inside the Cancer Connection building, taking calls and acting as the first faces visitors see when they walk in door.

Deflating the power

Malzone, who volunteers as a befriender two hours a week, described how she met a husband and wife this summer when they walked into Cancer Connection for the first time. “You could see this couple coming in with fear and trepidation,” she said. The man had just been diagnosed with cancer and they were uncertain about what steps to take. She approached them and suggested ways Cancer Connection could help them, describing its various services, but mostly she just listened to what was worrying them.

“You could see they became more comfortable,” as they talked with her, she said.

When she was in treatment herself, Malzone remembers craving time with people who made her feel like she was the same person she was before she got sick.

“I just wanted to feel normal when I had cancer,” she said. “I didn’t want to be defined by it, even when I was bald and sickened by chemo.”

Now, she approaches the people she meets through Cancer Connection with that in mind.

“Sometimes we give advice, sometimes we share our experiences, but mostly we listen,” she said of the befriender volunteers. The intent is to ease cancer’s powerful grip on people’s day-to-day existence, reminding them — as well as those around them — that “people have a life, and cancer just fits into it.”

Learning to listen

Paula Murphy, 56, is a psychotherapist and social worker in private practice in Northampton who works primarily with cancer patients and their families. She is one of the lead trainers for the program.

Murphy has a long history in the medical field. Her father started one of the first hospices in the United States where she worked for many years, and she was employed as an oncology social worker at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.

She said the befriending training, the latest round of which was paid for with a $3,555 grant from Florence Savings Bank, is focused on teaching participants to listen compassionately. The volunteers take part in role-playing exercises in which they act as both the caller and the listener.

Murphy also stresses to the trainees the importance of helping people find ways to be calm. The volunteers are urged to introduce them to the acupuncture and message therapies that Cancer Connection offers, and to use humor when they can. “Laughing together makes people feel better,” she said. And it can have more concrete results: “When you’re relaxed, your immune system is working,” she said.

Malzone took part in the training session that was offered in March, and included 11 potential volunteers. The group met with Murphy for several hours a day, six weeks in a row, a schedule, Murphy said, that creates intimacy.

“The befrienders support each other, and they can often apply the lessons in their own lives,” she said.

Informed by experience

Paul Waterman of Northampton, 59, who was diagnosed with a rare form of melanoma in 2005, attests to that. “The training sessions focus on getting to know yourself before you can help other people,” he said.

Waterman formerly served on Cancer Connection’s Board of Directors and used the agency’s services during his treatment, and so, when the chance to serve as a befriender came up, he jumped at it. Now he volunteers anywhere from 8 to 15 hours a week.

With his experience in various roles at the agency, Waterman has talked to a wide variety of patients and caregivers. That, and his own encounter with cancer, help him empathize with the people he aims to help, he said.

It’s “heart­-wrenching to see the people who have just gotten diagnosed,” he said. But he likes being able to comfort them with what he knows. He can be helpful, too, to those who have recurrent cancer, as well as caregivers searching for answers and hoping to learn how to be a confidant to the person who is ill.

Mainly, he said, the volunteers want people —and their caregivers — to know that there is somebody who cares about what’s going on with them.

He stresses the importance of the relationship between patient and caregiver. He recalls how much it meant to him to have loved ones around to help him when he was going through the various stages of the disease.

Family support is crucial in a time of crisis, he said. “Those of us who have had kids and gotten through cancer realize the caregivers were really the heroes,” he said. “Cancer Connection realizes how important the caregivers are.”

To become a befriender, call 586-1642 to set up an interview and schedule training dates or visit and fill out a volunteer application. The next training session will be held in the spring. To talk with a befriender, simply walk into the Cancer Connection building at 41 Locust Street in Northampton or call the organization at 586-1642.


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