Cancer survivors find support in wellness program


Sitting on a couch with colorful Guatemalan pillows, two women speak of feeling isolated from their friends, angry with their physicians, weak from battling surgery and chemotherapy, frustrated to the nth degree with insurance companies and worried about being difficult to live with. They also talk about discovering new strength within themselves and their relationships.

They are discussing the emotional quicksand that is cancer.

Susan Cooper and Pattie Moore are visiting the Wellness Community, a new program in Towson which offers free psychosocial services to men and women with cancer, to their families and close friends. The women are hungry to talk with others who know the harsh terrain of their disease. They seem to strike up an instant rapport with executive director Suzanne Brace, a breast cancer survivor.

Staffed by psychotherapists and social workers, the program provides a smorgasbord of services: support groups, workshops, pot-luck dinners, seminars in such topics as dreams and journal writing, exercise, relaxation techniques, visualization and guided imagery, meditation and even joke festivals.

One of its best features is its "whenever you want to drop by" availability.

"This is your community, not our community," Ms. Brace tells the women in the center's first official orientation group. "This is your place. You can come through the door any time. . . . When you get the diagnosis of cancer, you often have a feeling of isolation. Many people don't know what to say to you. Here they do."

Ms. Moore, a massage practitioner, recently suffered her second bout with cancer of the appendix. When she was first diagnosed, she says, many of her friends were uncomfortable asking about her "problem." Then they stopped phoning.

"They said they were giving me more space," she says. "When people imagine your pain, they think they're being supportive. They don't realize that they also have to reach out."

And they don't want to be reminded, she says.

"My family doesn't want to hear anything more about the fears I still have even though my prognosis is good.

"When I told my boyfriend I was coming here, he said 'I hope you told them you don't need that kind of help any more. You don't need to worry because I know you'll be all right.' That's where he finds his comfort, in the idea that I'm OK now."

The privately funded, non-profit Wellness Community is part of a national network begun in 1982 by former attorney Harold Benjamin after his wife, Harriet, survived her breast cancer. There are seven communities in California, where the program was founded. Baltimore's program is the 11th; others will open in Philadelphia, Boston and St. Louis by year's end.

The Baltimore program occupies a spacious suite of rooms in Dulaney Center Two of the Sheraton Hotel complex. With an annual budget of roughly $300,000, it employs three full-time staff and part-time facilitators.

Ms. Cooper, a free-lance typist, says she is seeking something beyond the strong support of her family and friends: The understanding of kindred spirits. As she relates details of the "latest chapter of pain and surgery" -- removal of her ovaries to combat the spread of her breast cancer -- she tells what it's like to deal with menopause and cancer at the same time. Others nod knowingly when she expresses frustration with her physicians' varying opinions and attitudes.

"Sometimes it feels like too many cooks in the kitchen, sometimes as if there are not enough. Or that no one is paying attention," Ms. Cooper says. "And who's in charge?"

"That's the hard part: Finding reliable sources of information," Ms. Moore agrees. "I'm still trying to deal with the difference between the one guy who gave me the death sentence and the one who said 'You're OK.' "

"It must feel like you've been dropped in the woods and have to find your own way out -- and the clock is ticking," says therapist Tom Large, who directs the programs for this center.

"It's hard to research something crummy about yourself," Ms. Cooper continues. "One day when I was going through the library looking for material, I got so depressed that I heaved the cancer books back on the shelf and grabbed ones on wreath making and outdoor cooking."

Ms. Moore admits she was ashamed when she discovered she had cancer.

"I didn't want to know anyone else who had cancer so that I could pretend that I wasn't like them," she says. "I felt like a failure. Why? Because I couldn't maintain a healthy body. I do all the things that you're supposed to do and I still got cancer."

"But we're not in control of that," Ms. Cooper points out.

Unlike many other cancer programs which hold drop-in support groups, the Wellness Community organizes groups so that the same people meet with one another each week. This system helps build a sense of intimacy while preventing too much repetition of conversations from other sessions.

The goal is that participants can free themselves from their fear, anger and frustration in order to regain a sense of control over their lives.

In her autobiography "It's Always Something," the late comedian Gilda Radner heaped praise upon the camaraderie she found at the Santa Monica Wellness Community in California. She wrote that it gave her the courage to become involved in the therapy for her ovarian cancer.

Many describe the program as a community that understands how cancer can threaten self-esteem, driving people to triple-guess even their most reasoned decisions.

"We'd like this to be a place where you can't do anything wrong," Ms. Brace says. "And as the founder, Harold Benjamin, also makes a point of saying: 'You aren't bad if you don't come to the Wellness Community.' "


Where: Suite 710 of Dulaney Center Two in the Sheraton Hotel complex, 901 Dulaney Valley Road.

Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday; Saturday mornings; some evenings.

Free: Services: Free, as is parking.

Support groups: 2-hour sessions, once a week, beginning week of March 15.

Call: (410) 832-2719.

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