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CaringOn gives back to cancer caregivers

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After her first round of breast cancer treatment, Judy Davanzo was troubled by the appearance of her husband.

"At the end of it, he just looked beat," says Davanzo, a 47-year-old Timonium mother of two. "That struck me."

Even when she felt well enough that her husband, Drew, could get away to play golf with friends or their family could go on vacation, Davanzo says, her medication would inevitably stop working or she'd take a turn for the worse.

"I hated that," she says. "He never got a break."

When she was rediagnosed with terminal stage 4 breast cancer that had metastasized into her liver two years ago, Davanzo began to think about what positive things she could do with her remaining time.

She knew of the many charities for cancer patients, but "I wanted to be able to do something for the caregivers," she says.

So in October 2012, Davanzo and a friend co-founded CaringOn, a nonprofit established to give short breaks to caregivers whose loved ones are battling terminal cancer.

In addition to covering the costs of the "retreats," the nonprofit helps arrange fill-in care for the patient, such as a nurse or an aide, if needed. The patient is able to help plan the caregiver's break, be it a short weekend trip or a lunch and a manicure.

"This way the patient is able to acknowledge their caregiver," says Davanzo, who also serves as president of CaringOn.

While there are charities that provide family vacations and other help to caregivers whose children are fighting cancer, CaringOn is focused exclusively on the caregivers of adult patients in Maryland with terminal diagnoses. And it's not limited to low-income families, because even affluent patients can find their budgets quickly zapped by medications not covered by insurance, Davanzo says.

The mission resonated with Lee Kappelman, a breast cancer survivor whose then-fiance was her caregiver.

"This is the ignored group in the health care equation," says Kappelman, CaringOn's co-founder and vice president. "Their own mental, physical and emotional health is often sacrificed taking care of their loved one."

A third co-founder, Julie Hettleman, helps provide the caregiver's perspective. Hettleman cared for her husband for more than eight years before he died in 2011 from Hodgkin's lymphoma.

A break rejuvenates the caregiver and helps relieve stress, the co-founders say.

Donna Landers, Davanzo's oncology nurse at Mercy Medical Center, is impressed with the organization.

"When you're the caregiver, you're always on, even when your loved one is sleeping," says Landers, who cared for her daughter during the final months of her cancer.

In her work as a nurse, she sees many caregivers who could use a break. "It's been a long time since they've done something for themselves."

It's particularly helpful that CaringOn provides a qualified replacement caregiver to tend to the patient, Landers says. It would be incredibly hard to enjoy the break otherwise, she says.

The "gifts" are customizable. One caregiver might like a night in a Baltimore hotel with the drapes closed and uninterrupted sleep. Another might enjoy seeing a musical in New York City with friends.

"Helping arrange that just makes the patient feel so good, too," Davanzo says.

Now that the groundwork has been established, the CaringOn board members are focused on fundraising and reaching out to oncology hospitals to find caregivers and patients who might benefit from the program.

"We don't have a model to follow," says Davanzo, a former elementary school teacher who also worked in marketing and sales. "But we feel like we're on a good, growing path."

Drew Davanzo wasn't surprised that his wife of 15 years wanted to create a nonprofit. "I've always thought she could do something like this," he says, adding that it fits her outgoing, energetic and compassionate nature.

And he sees the charity as part of his wife's legacy.

"She's been vocal," he says, "That this is something that she could leave behind."

The first recipients were Leah McGinnity and her mother, Pat Voglesong, whose husband, Charles, was diagnosed with stomach cancer in September 2002 and died a year later.

McGinnity says she was glad that her part-time job as a preschool teacher allowed her to be so involved in her father's care.

"I wouldn't change a thing," she says. "I was so happy that I could help both of them."

But, the Lutherville-Timonium teacher says, "You're so focused on caring for that person, you don't think about other things — getting your haircut, or things like that."

For their "retreat," she and her mother got manicures and pedicures and had lunch out.

"We hadn't had time for just the two of us. We had a really nice time."

"We certainly didn't feel worthy of being that first gift," McGinnity says, but they treasured the afternoon. "It is a beautiful organization."

For more information: http://www.caringon.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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