It started out as a small, personal gesture between friends. In October 2008, La Cañada Flintridge resident Kathy Waller gave her best friend a St. Christopher necklace as a sign of support and protection after her friend's diagnosis with breast cancer.
"It is just a really scary time," Waller said. "There is so much information that you are getting from doctors and the Internet. It is so overwhelming. You just need to have a friend."
A few weeks later, during a visit to her obstetrician-gynecologist, Waller, 52, got her own diagnosis — there was a massive lump in her right breast and 17 "hot spots" in her left breast.
In January 2009, the La Cañada Elementary School mother and former La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation executive board member underwent a double mastectomy. The surgery was a success, but now it was Waller's turn to seek support from family and friends.
"It was a longer and harder recovery than I expected," Waller said. "Overall, it was six to eight weeks of being at home. I had two drains on either side, and then you have these expanders that are stretching the tissue to [create space to] put implants in."
Her two sisters, including her twin, Karla Reasor, stayed with her for a month. Routine activities such as walking up and down stairs was painful. And Waller, a fitness buff who frequented the Catz Sports Performance Center in Pasadena, was desperate to get back into her exercise routine.
"It was hard to see her not being able to jump up and do things," Reasor said. "Even typing on her laptop was painful."
Slowly, Waller's body did heal. After a few setbacks, she had her final reconstructive surgery, performed in July by another La Cañadan, Dr. James Andersen. She is now cancer-free.
But it was hardly life back to normal, Waller said. From the moment of her diagnosis she was imbued with a new sense of purpose. She wanted to empower individuals, especially women, to support one another through cancer despite obstacles such as geography.
Together, Waller and Reasor launched Link of Support, a business and website that provides practical and emotional help to cancer patients and their caregivers. Its signature product is the Link of Support necklace, inspired by the St. Christopher necklace Waller gave to her friend two years earlier. It comes in several variations and allows family and friends to extend a gesture of solidarity, even if they live out of state.
"It is something different than sending flowers, something that maybe has a little more meaning," Waller said.
The site, which went live in May, also includes links to medical-information resources, as well as tips about what to do (take your pain medication) and what not to do (don't take your children with you when visiting a cancer patient).
"There is just so much in the Internet, both the technical and the anecdotal, I think it can be overwhelming for women, especially when they are first diagnosed," said Karen Cornell, Link of Support's chief financial officer.
The site helps newly diagnosed people cut through the junk with "kitchen table" advice, the type of advice one would share with a friend over a cup of coffee, Cornell said. And 10% of all proceeds from the website are being donated to the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
More than anything, Waller said, she wants Link of Support to help to emotional shock that comes with a cancer diagnosis.
"I hope Link of Support will help people to not feel alone during this critical time," Waller said.