BUCKSPORT — When Barbara Vittum learned she had breast cancer almost 15 years ago, the diagnosis seemed to come out of nowhere.
“I was very healthy at the time,” she recalled. “I was doing landscaping. I was 120 pounds and pretty much muscle.”
But then Vittum, a Bucksport resident who’s now 58, became fatigued and felt a lump. It was cancer. Though successful her treatment, which included a mastectomy and chemotherapy, took the better part of a year and was draining in every single way.
“I got really, really sick from the chemo and ended up in the hospital in isolation because of my low white blood cell count,” she said. “I didn’t recognize myself when I got back. I was so thin.”
Part of what helped Vittum —who also ran a wine shop at the time of her diagnosis — through her treatment was the support of many friends and family members. They mowed her lawn, plowed her driveway, raised funds to pay her bills, cooked food and drove her to the hospital, among other tasks.
So helpful were they that Vittum, moved by their actions, decided to get a college degree and start a cancer support organization upon her recovery.
She’s now the executive director of the Cancer Support Center of Maine, a group she founded in 2009. It provides support services for those getting treated for cancer and free education to anyone looking to lower their chances of getting the disease.
“The support piece is so important,” Vittum said. “A cancer diagnosis hits you physically, mentally, emotionally, financially. It affects people in almost every aspect of their lives.”
To that end, the Support Center will help cancer patients and their loved ones with tasks such as finances and transportation. They also arrange a monthly support group for cancer patients at Bucksport Regional Health Center. It meets at noon on the first Tuesday of every month.
Given the high cancer rates in the Downeast region, Vittum said educating those at a higher risk of cancer has also become an important mission of the Support Center. Washington and Hancock counties have, respectively, the second and fourth highest rates of cancer diagnosis in the state, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tobacco use (either via smoking or chewing) and obesity both heighten a person’s risk of cancer, Vittum pointed out, so the Support Center has collaborated with Eastport Health Center and Healthy Acadia to offer several programs targeting those who want to quit smoking or participate in a wellness program. Such programs instruct participants on how to manage nutrition and weight, lower stress and become active.
“They’re achievable goals,” Vittum said. “It’s something we can do to reduce our own risk. Plus, you feel better if you can get plenty of sleep and reduce how much you eat.”
The Cancer Support Center of Maine can be reached at 469-6363. Information on its programs is available at http://www.cancersupportcenterofmaine.org/.
Its next tobacco cessation class runs from Oct. 6 to Nov. 24 at Meadow View Apartments in Ellsworth. It will be organized in conjunction with Healthy Acadia, which can be reached at 667-7171.