Cancer Support Community Helps Victims and Families

August 23, 2015 Updated: August 23, 2015

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will hardly faze me,” an old English children’s rhyme persuades a victim of name-calling to ignore the taunt and to remain calm and good-natured. Words, are, after all, just words. And words contain a myriad of associations and interpretations, though none on the spectrum is likely lethal.

The “C” word, or cancer, disquieting to mention—especially when it afflicts a person close to one’s heart—without ceremony jars the realization that what is supposed to happen to somebody else can happen to oneself, too. Whether “cancer” or by any other name—carcinoma, melanoma, sarcoma, et al.—the writing on the wall sounds the penultimate image of dread.

And that’s for a valid reason, states the American Cancer Society, claiming that cancer is the leading cause of death in America next to heart disease. Relentless, unrepentant, unmerciful, cancer leaves no stone unturned, no chaff of grain unscathed, laying down life-altering fabric for sufferers and their families. It doesn’t discriminate who it affects, or when.

Nothing can compare to the actual triumph over cancer, of course. Recent statistics from the American Cancer Society reflects a 68 percent survivability rate, attributed to factors like early diagnosis and advances in medical treatment. A new challenge goes out this year to 1.5 million, the number of new cases the Society projects to occur nationally in 2015. Like life itself, licking the disease is far from a guarantee in spite of modern advances in medicine.

What isn’t all that new in theory but is gaining attention in practice, which may serve to fill a black hole in treatment for cancer, is treating the family as well as the victim. This involves the use of language as a tool in empowering individuals and families to cope with the terrorizing disease when it strikes. Words are cheap, so it is said, but their effect can be everlasting, as the Bee Gees note in their song of decades ago.

Words of hope seed an organization called Cancer Support Community, a nonprofit in Pasadena, Calif., that arms individuals with cancer and their families with more than lip service in weathering the storm.

As noted in the group’s website, the Community presents a veritable slate of free activities that include professionally led support groups, educational workshops, and what it calls “mind-body classes” that include nutrition and exercise programs from walking to strength and conditioning, stress-reduction classes like yoga and t’ai chi, painting, knitting, and journaling. These are the intangible components that supplement the tangibles of medical treatment by helping cancer sufferers and their families cope.

The mission of the Community, which states “no one needs to face cancer alone,” is echoed sharply by Meg Symes, its director of special events and gifts, who assumes an organizational spirit of “it takes one [cancer survivor] to know one,” to help others so-afflicted. “By people who have been there, seen that, done that,” she says.

Symes, who has worked with the Community for five years, perfectly illustrates this aspect, herself a cancer survivor. Her job at the Community, she finds “fulfilling,” and gives her a chance to give back. “I understand how difficult it is with cancer,” she says.

In its 33rd year of operation, the Cancer Support Community (formerly known as the Wellness Community) receives referrals from the City of Hope, the internationally famed cancer research hospital in Duarte, Calif., as well as the local Huntington Memorial Hospital, in Pasadena, and walk-ins. Services and all activities for participants are free, supported by proceeds from diverse fund-raising activities like art auctions, dinner galas, dances, and raffles. There are no grants or support from community chests or corporate foundations.

The Community’s next event, Ladies Night Out on October 2, represents local efforts in launching National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Breast cancer heads the list of afflictions for women in the United States.

Activities at Ladies Night Out, also open to men, include cocktails, dinner, a live auction, dancing, and guest speakers from the media and entertainment. Proceeds from tickets, $175 a piece on Eventbrite.com, and packages of sponsorships are expected to gross $100,000, says Symes, who’s managing this event for the fifth straight year.

She stresses that it’s to pay for operational and administrative costs, “for the benefit of people impacted by cancer.” Figuratively at least, the best things in life are free, but the reality related to rental of space, materials, and staff dictates monetary obligations in making them free.

“It’s a lot of work and it takes a lot of volunteers,” adds Symes, whose efforts contribute to the Cancer Support Community being able to make viable add-ons to medical care by addressing whole-person needs and recognizing the powerful ways in which emotional, mental, social, and behavioral factors can directly affect health.

Timothy Wahl’s experience in business, education, the sciences, and the arts gives him a unique platform on a spectrum of subjects.