"Receiving something tangible is so much more personable than an email or text message," Gina Mulligan tells PEOPLE of her 2009 Stage 1 breast cancer diagnosis

By Rose Minutaglio
May 19, 2016 11:30 AM

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Gina Mulligan knows from experience that handwritten letters have the power to heal.

After the epistolary novelist from Folsom, California, finished treatments for breast cancer in 2011, she had an inspired idea – write snail mail with words of encouragement to breast cancer patients.

“Getting letters and cards in the hospital is what got me through my own battle,” Mulligan, 47, tells PEOPLE of her 2009 Stage 1 breast cancer diagnosis. “The stationary and the handwriting made it feel like a gift! It was warm, and receiving something tangible is so much more personable than an email or text message.”

With the help of friends and family, Mulligan founded her national non-profit, Girls Love Mail, in August 2011. She recruited a handful of volunteers to come to her house and write letters to breast cancer patients, which she then dropped off at local California cancer centers.

Since then, the organization has sent letters to 63,000 women at 152 different centers across America – but Mulligan dreams of ultimately getting a letter in the hands of every single breast cancer patient in the country.

Gina Mulligan
Gina Mulligan

Mulligan remembers the first letter she wrote for Girls Love Mail in 2011.

“It was emotional, more emotional than I write now, and I shared my own experiences with cancer,” she explains. “But it was heartfelt and honest and I wanted the woman who read it to know that we, as women, are strong and that we, as women, are fighters and survivors.”

She says she encourages her 3,000 letter-writing volunteers to be positive, share their own survival stories (if they have them) and “make it personal.”

“As patients get bad news and they are trying to navigate this cancer maze, they love the idea of having something positive to keep them going,” says Mulligan. “When you go into radiation chambers, you’re in there by yourself, you feel very alone so we hope patients can remember their letters to remind them they aren’t alone. It raises spirits.”

Girls Love Mail letters
Gina Mulligan

Breast cancer survivor Julie Zander remembers receiving her letter in April 2015 while at Kellogg Cancer Center in Evanston, Illinois.

“It was from an 8-year-old boy and it just made my heart melt,” Zander, 52, tells PEOPLE. “There’s something about receiving a surprise letter from a stranger that immediately lifts your spirits.

The mother of two still has the note.

“It brings comfort,” she explains. “This little boy was so innocent and honest and it absolutely meant the world to me in my moment of panic and depression.”

Julie Zander
Julie Zander

Half of the Girls Love Mail volunteer writers are breast cancers survivors and others come from school groups, Girl Scout troops and sorority/fraternity organizations.

“Anyone can write a letter, though,” says Mulligan. “We have so many women who begin their letters with ‘Dear Sister’ or ‘Dear Friend,’ accompanied with words of encouragement.”

She adds, “These letters can be a source of distraction from their problems, and it’s very humbling to know that there are so many people out there who care.”

Mulligan and her team of 15 volunteers at Girls Love Mail read each letter carefully before they send them off to the cancer centers.

“We get tons from children in classrooms saying, ‘Get well!’ ” she says. “We also have letters that talk about celebrating the writer’s own milestones and encouraging patients to do the same.”

Pearl Cox
Gina Mulligan

“A little encouragement can make a whole lot of difference,” Pearl Cox, a 78-year-old Girls Love Mail volunteer, tells PEOPLE. “I’ve been there before and for women that don’t have families and are alone, it can be so, so scary. It can feel like the whole world is caving in.”

Cox, a breast cancer survivor of 26 years, works with Mulligan to read the hundreds of letters that come in each month.

“In this crazy world, there are so many selfless and kind and loving people in the world that will take the time the time out to write a letter of encouragement even if they don’t know who the recipient is,” she says. “If I can send out a letter and it makes them happy, then I feel like I’ve done what I set out to do.”

Girls Love Mail volunteers writing letters
Gina Mulligan

Girls Love Mail relies heavily on volunteers and donations to provide letters and cover postage costs. A portion of the proceeds from Mulligan’s debut novel, Remember the Ladies, will go towards buying stamps.

“I’m not going to stop writing letters until every woman with breast cancer in the country receives one,” says Mulligan. “It’s that important.”

She adds, “I still keep all of the letters I received when I get breast cancer in a basket, I take them out from time to time and reread them. It reminds me that people care.”

For more information on Girls Love Mail guidelines and how to become a letter writer, visit girlslovemail.com.

All letters should include your full name and a return address on the mailing envelope and can be sent to:

Girls Love Mail
193 Blue Ravine Road, Suite 120
Folsom, California 95630

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