A helping hand can provide the comfort people need when faced with hard times, but a helping heart is even more vital.
Nancy Younker, 68, of Hagerstown creates heart-shaped pillows for breast cancer patients while volunteering with Breast Cancer Awareness-Cumberland Valley, a nonprofit organization that offers support and education to those affected by breast cancer.
Younker's journey to creating these pillows began 19 years ago. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. After grueling rounds of chemotherapy, she eventually had a mastectomy. For two and a half years she was cancer-free. But it returned. Her second bout with breast cancer ended with a second mastectomy.
During her treatment Younker received support from Breast Cancer Awareness's Hopeline and from its support group. Eventually, she began volunteering with the organization.
"They were there for me so I wanted to give back and help other breast cancer survivors," Younker said.
Younker spoke with patients on the toll-free Hopeline phone line, maintained the organization's scrapbook, helped at Breast Cancer Awareness events and even served on the board of directors for 10 years.
Then, one day, a small idea led to a big inspiration. A hospital in the area began giving heart-shaped pillows to breast cancer patients. Younker and other volunteers at Breast Cancer Awareness thought this would be a great help to women in the area.
More than decorative, cuddly accents, the heart-shaped pillows serve as a comfort and pain reliever for patients who had a mastectomy. Patients can rest against the pillow or place it under their arms. The heart-shaped notch helps makes it comfortable for them to rest their arms at the incision line.
"They say how much of a comfort it is to use them and it makes them feel so much better that they have something soft to put under their arms and they really appreciate it," she said.
Younker makes the pillows out of pink flannel material and fills them with Polyfill, a soft polyester stuffing. Each pillow is roughly 12 inches in diameter. She makes 100 to 150 pillows per year in her home.
After they're made, the pillows are placed in a kit along with a breast cancer treatment handbook, a camisole, a jump rope and a squeeze ball for patients to use to exercise their arms. This kit is provided to breast cancer patients, free of charge, by Breast Cancer Awareness' Moving Forward program.
"I make them because being there for the other women is a comfort for me and for them," Younker said. "As a breast cancer survivor, I would consider this a part of my therapy as well as theirs."
Younker has been making the pillows for eight and a half years and continues to volunteer with Breast Cancer Awareness, according to Joan Fell, the chapter's executive director.
"Nancy has been a tremendous asset to Breast Cancer Awareness-Cumberland Valley and has always been available to help at a moment's notice," Fell said. "The pillows are one of the best things they receive; they are such a help."
Breast Cancer Awareness-Cumberland Valley, started in 1989, is a broad spectrum organization of support for patients and families.
"We have the most comprehensive breast cancer support program in the nation. The services are truly free. Everything we do is at no cost to the patient," Fell said.
The small pillows have served as an aide in a big network of support for breast cancer patients. Once word spread about their usefulness and their heartfelt creation, people requested them. The pillows have been sent to areas such as Frederick, Md., and to other states. They have even traveled internationally to Australia and Japan for friends and relatives who are undergoing breast cancer treatment.
"I like helping someone else who is going through their cancer experience," Younker said. "If I can make these pillows to give them comfort when they are going through it, that's a good thing."