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Girls Love Mail: Breast cancer patients discover healing power of letters

by Susan Donaldson James / / Source: TODAY

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Hand-written letters are a lost art form, but one nonprofit group is using its power to provide support to breast cancer patients.

Gina Mulligan
Novelist and breast cancer survivor Gina Mulligan founded the nonprofit Girls Love Mail in 2011.Girls Love Mail

Anne Perkins was on the receiving end of several letters from volunteers at Girls Love Mail, a California-based nonprofit that supports newly diagnosed breast cancer patients. Perkins had just suffered a second miscarriage last year, when she found a lump in her breast while showering. Then a mammogram and biopsy revealed she had cancer.

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“It was pretty shocking news and I was quite freaked out,” said Perkins, 40, from Sacramento, California. “Everything goes through your mind.”

RELATED: Eating a high-fiber diet as a teen may help prevent breast cancer later

So when she got her treatment plan at Sutter Cancer Center, she was surprised to see a handwritten letter tucked inside the folder.

Mary Pare and patient Jenni Shores
Mary Pare (seated right) is a nurse navigator at Sutter Cancer Center in Sacramento, California and has delivered 1,800 letters to newly diagnosed patients.Girls Love Mail

“I didn’t open it for a week, I was so overwhelmed,” Perkins told TODAY.

“It said something like, ‘I know what you are going through and I wish you hope and strength.’ And I started crying,” she said. “To get it from a stranger who has no incentive to do that, except from their heart.”

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Perkins said that simple letter, which she read multiple times during chemotherapy and later surgery, “made a difference.”

Girls Love Mail was founded in 2011 by Gina Mulligan, a 47-year-old novelist from Folsom, California, who waged her own fight with breast cancer.

Mulligan got her diagnosis in 2009, while she was writing an historical novel, comprised only of letters.

“It took some time before my new reality sunk in,” she told TODAY.

Two cards
Girls Love Mail has delivered 66,000 letters of support to cancer centers around the country. They are in need of more writers.Girls Love Mail

Mulligan, who had been an avid pen pal writer as a girl, says that during her ordeal, she received more than 200 letters, “mostly from people I did not know.”

Only later, after she had recovered, did she get the connection that personal letters could be so healing.

“There is something so sweet and real about a letter, the pure generosity of time and kindness,” she said.

Mulligan enlisted family friends who began writing at her kitchen table. Since then, a small staff and a core of volunteers — breast cancer survivors, Girl Scouts and others — have written 66,000 such letters.

“We read every single one,” she said. “The best are very personal with positive messages.”

Girls Love Mail bundles them up and sends them to cancer centers around the country where nurses like Mary Pare distribute them in “education binders.” Pare alone has delivered 1,800 letters to new patients.

At first Pare, 64, wasn't a believer in the program.

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“I didn’t know how I felt about delivering a sealed letter,” she told TODAY. “You are very protective of the patient. What if it says something weird?”

Then she learned that letters are reviewed by a committee and some are weeded out. But today, Pare has changed her attitude and says she understands the power of a handwritten letter.

One patient told Pare she put her letter on her bed stand and read it every night during cancer treatment: “She said, ‘It was my companion and provided me with the courage to go through another day.’”

“It’s nice not to have something clinical in this very clinical book,” said Pare. “It’s a tangible form of caring. Someone you didn’t even know was kind enough to write.”

Because of such a positive experience, Perkins is now a volunteer for Girls Love Mail, sharing her own journey with breast cancer patients.

“I don’t sugar coat it, but put things in a positive light,” she said. “I tell them I’ve been through it and I felt really low and defeated, but that will change, and you have to have hope.”

“These letters give you a little bit of faith, a little bit of hope and a little bit of strength,” she said. “You don’t know how far that can go.”

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