Wellness groups offer support for adults with cancer


Raising the spirits of cancer patients and their families is the goal of two groups trying to establish "wellness" centers, one in Baltimore and one in Anne Arundel County.

Publicized by the late comedienne Gilda Radner, a participant in the Santa Monica Wellness Community during her battle with ovarian cancer two years ago, Wellness Communities offer free psychosocial services to adults with cancer and to their families.

"We don't charge anything for anything under any circumstances," said California attorney Harold Benjamin, who founded the first community in Santa Monica in 1982 and supported it for two years. Dr. Benjamin, who has a doctorate in social psychology, was in town last week to meet the volunteer boards of directors of the two proposed communities and provide a boost to their publicity efforts.

Wellness Communities provide spirit-raising adjuncts to treatment, rather than substitutes, alternatives or treatment itself. Staffed by psychotherapists and social workers, they offer meetings, classes, lectures and social gatherings: Participants get to see -- and be -- models of energy, enthusiasm and joie de vivre for one another.

Unaffiliated with hospitals or other institutions, the communities provide a homelike setting, according to Suzanne Brace, chairman of the organizing committee in Baltimore. The advantage, she said, is that "some patients have a hard time going back to the site of treatment for support."

The money for all these activities must come from the community at large: The annual budget is between $250,000 and $300,000, according to Dr. Benjamin, and groups must have $200,000 in hand before they open their doors. Wellness Communities are constantly fund-raising, but none of the 10 that have opened around the country have had to shut down for lack of money.

Finding the money is not, however, an easy thing to do. "We've been working on it since November 1989," said Katherine Smith, project coordinator in Anne Arundel County, where a recent $50,000 donation from a group of radiologists brought the total to $100,000.

"We think it will go faster than that," said Ms. Brace, whose board incorporated last week after several months of informal meetings, "because we have, hopefully, on our board of directors some people who are ready and willing to give large sums of money, or who have access to large sums of money."

To contact the Anne Arundel County group, call 987-9299; the number for the Baltimore group is 832-2719.

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