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Participant Profile: Gillian Harwood

In honor of National Pancreatic and Lung Cancer Awareness Month, we would like to share Gillian Harwood’s story. Gillian is a seven-year pancreatic and lung cancer survivor and a CSCVVSB support group participant.

GillianHarwood2Gillian (Gill) Harwood was diagnosed in 2005 with both pancreatic and lung cancer. After having surgery to remove a lobe of her lung, she had a second surgery to remove her pancreas, spleen, and gall bladder. The difficult recovery included a five-week hospital stay and a feeder pump. Once she was released from the hospital, she still required care from home nurses and her husband, who she says is a “fantastic caregiver and champion for me.”

After the ordeal of two major surgeries, Gill still had to get through her chemotherapy treatment. In her oncologist’s office she learned about the Cancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara (CSCVVSB). “When I was well enough to drive I decided to visit and then joined, which was one of the best decisions of my life,” says Gill.

At first, Gill wasn’t sure about joining a support group. This would be her first experience in a group setting and she wondered if it would be depressing. “How wrong I was. It was so inspiring and educational and made me feel that my wonderful facilitator Anne Gessert and the other members of the group have given me confidence and allowed me to have a grumble when I have felt low,” says Gill.

While Gill’s doctors have pronounced her pancreatic cancer “history,” the lung cancer reappeared, requiring more chemotherapy. For the past several years Gill has been taking an oral chemotherapy on a reduced dose due to severe side effects. “I am now on my third head of hair,” states Gill.

Throughout the grueling experience of surgeries and treatment, Gill has found hope and camaraderie among her support group members. “It is very consoling to be with people who have experienced the overwhelming terror of finding out that you have cancer. I am so happy I discovered the Cancer Support Community and I am so grateful for the staff, volunteers and donors and all of the wonderful survivors who are fighting this battle as I am. It is a constant battle but it is made so much better by all the people being so inspiring and uplifting.

Gill lives in Westlake Village with her husband Barry and enjoys traveling to see her family scattered around the country and in the United Kingdom. She has three sons, three stepdaughters, eleven grandchildren and a great granddaughter. Gill also loves going on cruises, reading, and cooking.

The Power of Hope

In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we would like to share these stories of courage from seven breast cancer survivors, all participants at the Cancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara. May their words inspire you and fill you with hope!

Evette McAlister

EvetteMcAlisterConejo Valley residents Evette and Mark led a very busy life, with two small children in school, Mark’s job keeping him in Santa Monica during the week, and Evette, a physical therapist assistant, involved in setting up a pilates/fitness studio.  But suddenly, in April of 2008, everything changed when Evette was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Within a just few weeks, she underwent a lumpectomy followed by a battery of tests, doctor appointments and scans, and a subsequent double mastectomy, followed up with several months of chemotherapy.

“When I was diagnosed, my biggest fear was whether or not I would be there for my children,” says Evette.  Mark and Evette also struggled with how they were going to tell their children, ages six and eight at the time.

Mark and Evette knew they needed someone to talk to, so when a friend recommended the Cancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara (CSCVVSB), they decided to try it.

“I walked in three days after my diagnosis,” says Evette.  ”I knew I needed answers, but I wanted them to come from someone who could relate to my experience.”  Evette joined a support group for people with cancer, and Mark, feeling the same way, joined a group for family members.  Both groups are led by trained psychotherapists.

And, thanks to the Kids Circle, a support group for children with a parent or grandparent with cancer, the children had their own place to go as well.  “We made sure to get their permission first,” says Evette.  “We asked our kids: ‘would you like to spend some time with kids just like you, who have a mommy or daddy who is sick with cancer?’”

The children were open to it, and ended up attending for over a year, during which they became close friends with other children in the group and learned to cope with the anxiety and uncertainty that a cancer diagnosis can bring to a family.  “My children learned to open up and talk about things with each other, with other participants, and with the adults in our family in ways I didn’t learn until much later in life,” says Mark.

Now that she is through with chemotherapy and has completed all six scheduled reconstructive surgeries, Evette is excited about moving forward with her plan to open her fitness/pilates studio where other breast cancer survivors can achieve restoration and rehabilitation.  “I feel strongly about making a connection with other women in my position, who are feeling the aftermath of all their cancer treatment,” she says.  “When I got my diagnosis, cancer put a screeching halt on my plans. I believe this was a sign for something bigger ahead, that I need to use both my professional and now personal experience as a survivor to help others who have been impacted by this journey.”

Gail Lemberger

GailLembergerI was first diagnosed with Breast Cancer in January 2006. My cancer was not found by a routine mammogram. I noticed that my left axillary (armpit) lymph nodes were swollen in the fall of 2005. Thankfully I didn’t listen to my doctor’s office and just brush it off as cysts. It took a few weeks but I finally got in to see my doctor. He did a breast exam and found nothing and was still saying most likely a cyst. As an afterthought he suggested an axillary ultrasound. That revealed that it was not a cyst and I needed a biopsy. First a diagnostic mammogram was ordered and it was still considered “normal”. Biopsy of lymph node came back positive for cancer and a Breast MRI revealed a 3 cm tumor.  I later learned that I had dense breast tissue and therefore the tumor was not detected. I went on to have a bi-lateral mastectomy (no reconstruction), chemo and radiation. In June of 2009 I found out that my cancer had metastasized (spread) to my liver with about 20 lesions. I was devastated, I was now Stage IV! Not something I wanted to hear. I began chemo again along with a targeted therapy in July 2009. This continued every three weeks until June of this year, 2013. Due to a few side effects I have had to take a break from treatment. The treatments have worked as far as the cancer is concerned and have kept everything under control, yay! Other than the first 6 months of treatments I have lived a good quality of life and been able to enjoy doing the things I love, like spending time with my wonderful husband and son, and my lovely corgis that are like my personal therapy dogs and help to keep me sane.

Cancer Support Community has been a huge comfort to me. They have helped me learn how to cope with living with Stage IV cancer. They have given me hope. They have shown me that I do have the strength to deal with this on a daily basis. I especially enjoy the yoga classes and educational programs they have. Once you walk in the door you know that you are loved and supported and no one judges you. I have also been given the opportunity to volunteer at Cancer Support Community on a weekly basis, and it has been a pleasure working with the amazing, caring staff.

Liane Olin

LianeOlin-blogI started my cancer journey at the end of 2007 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I was a full-time mom and a full-time Human Resources representative with State Farm.  My oldest child was almost three, my son was two, and I had a baby.  I didn’t expect to have to fit cancer into my already-full plate.  Before I was to start chemotherapy in October of 2007, two of my three children were diagnosed with croup and could not go to daycare.  I panicked and called the Cancer Support Community, to see if they could help me find a nanny, a mom, a neighbor, someone to help.  When I asked for help, they planted the seed: the idea that I could call back when I needed help, not just when my kids did.

I joined a support group and signed up for every class the Cancer Support Community had in Westlake Village.  I did art on Tuesday, I did qigong on Saturday…I needed to try out everything to see what would help me get through this process.

The highlight of my week is my Thursday support group.  At the end of the day when I’m at home, when I’m sitting at the dinner table, that’s what I talk about – what’s going on in my support groups.

I finished chemotherapy.  The thing that’s so hard to explain to people who don’t have cancer is that even though chemo is done, cancer isn’t over.  You really need to talk to people who have cancer, who understand that, who can help you ask the right questions.

Last December, I signed up to volunteer for the Holiday Homes Tour.  I tried to schedule it at a time that would be most convenient for my husband.  As soon as I mentioned it to my husband, he said, “Well, maybe we can get a sitter because I want to come too.”  Even though he doesn’t come to CSC, he can see the difference it makes, and he wants to give back as well.

The Cancer Support Community has touched not just my own life, but my family’s life too.

Lianne Ingalla

LianneIngallaMemorial Day, 2008, brought stunning news: “I’m sorry, you have cancer.”  Not only did a journey begin with that diagnosis of Stage 2 breast cancer, but a deep connection with the Cancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara soon followed.  Having no frame of reference for hearing those terrifying words, I truly needed the education, support, and hope that they provided.  I quickly joined a support group for patients going through treatment.  My husband signed on for the family / care partners group next door.

For two and a half years on Wednesday nights, we were unfailingly at our second home at CSC.  During the many months of active treatment, we participated in dozens of workshops, seminars, creative expressions opportunities, uplifting comedy nights, and guided relaxation sessions.  There were pot luck dinners and social connections made, including an amazing “family of friends” that formed.  They were dealing with the same issues and challenges as we were.  Having these services and activities provided free of charge was a huge boost during that stressful time.  Even with good insurance, there were countless extra expenses that erode the family budget when dealing with cancer treatments, like travel costs, special dietary needs, extra vitamins or supplements, and comfort care items.

Within several months after I finished my treatments, my husband, Jesse, was diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer.  There was a history on both sides of his family, but still, it is unnerving to hear the news.  “Both of us?  How can this be?!”  His treatment, while quick, led to difficult side effects that lasted for months.  This was especially hard on our young grandson, who lived with us.  He had to keep distance from “Papa” that both loathed.  Fortunately, there was a special program for children of parents or grandparents dealing with cancer called Kid’s Circle.  Jesse also joined a newly formed prostate cancer support group that meets twice a month to share the focus of dealing with his own diagnosis and treatment aftermath.

Thus, our entire family had access to the extra care we needed during several very difficult years within the Cancer Support Community’s sheltering umbrella.  As Jesse says, “The final stage of healing is giving back.”  We are now privileged to participate in a new speaker’s bureau formed to spread the message of CSC’s mission to the greater community by sharing the stories of our cancer journey through diagnosis and treatment to survivorship.

Lisa DeVillers

LisaDeVillersIn May 2005, after just returning from an East coast trip, my life changed in an instant.  I found a sizable lump in my breast.  Somehow, my instinct knew it was cancer.  For the next seven days, my focus was on getting a definitive diagnosis.  When it was confirmed, what I needed most was information.  Enter the Cancer Support Community (Wellness Community at that time); I had remembered hearing about it from one of my former patients.  During my initial phone call I was invited to a Survivors Day picnic, I attended.  One of the speakers during the event defined the term “survivor” to include anyone at any point post diagnosis.  That truly resonated with me.  I spent the entire morning of the following Tuesday using the computer at Cancer Support Community to gather information before meeting with my medical team.  Armed with that information I was ready to make the decisions that were best for me.   After surgery and throughout treatment, I attended a weekly participants group, special topic workshops, and some social events.

I credit my cancer survival to many things; my faith, support from family and friends, a knowledgeable medical team, my yoga practice, and the services available at the Cancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara.

Lynn Buchanan

LynnBuchananWhen you are given the news that you have cancer, it feels like your world is spinning and you want it to stop. Something deadly has taken control of the steering wheel of your life. You are in crisis and need a source of strength to help you rise above the fear. With cancer, a significant source of strength is HOPE.

I found HOPE and I found it in three very important ways. My first source of strength is my amazing family and friends who provide moral support. Another source of strength comes from the excellent medical resources in our county.

Even with support from friends and family, and excellent medical care, my fluctuating emotions were a huge distraction, impacting my ability to get the information I needed to make decisions for my health and well-being.

The Cancer Support Community was exactly what I needed. Soon after surgery, I joined the Breast Cancer Support Group at CSCVVSB. I am among a wonderful group of women who are creating meaning from their journey.  We listen to each other, we laugh, and we feel almost normal again. They truly understand what’s happening to me, and that means a lot.

I also received valuable information at the Cancer Support Community. On my first visit I got a booklet that made a real difference in my relationship with my caregivers. The information gave me insight into the fear and emotional turmoil they were going through.

CSCVVSB offers a whole-person approach to emotional recovery. I have both hands back on the steering wheel of my life. Imagine all this support was given to me at no charge! Those who contribute time and dollars are instrumental in helping cancer patients like me gain back control of their conflicting emotions through HOPE.

An important stage in the recovery journey is giving back.  I am glad to continue being an energetic volunteer at CSCVVSB. It is very important to me that all cancer patients in my community have access to their valuable resources.

Maxine Mennen

MaxineMennenI am fortunate— my breast cancer was small and caught early, but I was still traumatized by the thought of having cancer— the word itself is frightening.

I am fortunate—my treatment was minimal, is completed and now I am healthy, and have reached my goal of being cancer free.

I am fortunate—because I found the Cancer Support Community (CSC), formerly The Wellness Community.  It provided me a safe, comforting and nurturing place; a place in which I could come to grips with the disease.  I learned more about my cancer from lectures provided by medical and research personnel, was taught ways to relax, to exercise more and to eat more healthfully.

Most importantly, CSC is a place in which I could talk to others who had shared my terror and who had the same fears, and hopes as I did.  The CSC helped turn CANCER into cancer.

Skhye’s Story

This year, a very special young lady spoke at our Evening of Hope Gala. Skhye Adolph, a participant in our Kid’s Circle program, spoke about her experience with cancer and how CSCVVSB helped her and her family through a tough time.

Here is Skhye’s speech:

Good evening!   My name is Skhye Adolph.  My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2012.  My mom was going to a lot of doctor appointments and she was always going through a surgery.  I was really scared and confused.  Did this mean I was going to lose my mom?  I wasn’t sure how I felt or what cancer even meant.  I had a lot of questions but didn’t know how to ask them, I would talk to my friends at school but they would just listen and walk away.  They didn’t know what I was going through.  I was sad and I didn’t want to tell my mom because she would be sad too.

One day my mom came home and asked me if I would like to go to a Kids Circle where I could listen and talk to other kids that were going through the same thing. I was excited to try it.  The first day I was there all of thekids and Joyce welcomed me.   We shared our stories about what we were going through with our families and how we all felt.  Everybody was very nice.  From that day on I looked forward to going to this class.

It helped me understand what cancer was by doing different activities.  Joyce was helpful with allowing us all to express our feelings through activities and talking to each other.  One day I came in and said that I was bored at home because my mom is t ired and we can’t go places.  Joyce helped me understand that my mom was tired so maybe we could play some board games instead of going to the park.  It was a great idea because it let my family have fun even when things were not good.  The kids in the group do activities that allow us to share our feelings and take time out to be there for each other. In the beginning of each group we use what is called a “talking stick”.  It has fun decorations on it and when a person has it in their hand, they say how their day was and also give an update on how their family members are doing.  I take this time to share with how my mom is doing.  It makes me feel very special and that my friends really care about me.  Sometimes we do improv and dance to be able to act out our emotions.  This is a lot of fun because we all laugh so much.  It is a time that we all get to be ourselves and just be free of anything that is going on.  I most enjoy that I am able to talk about anything with this group.

It has been a great experience for me and if I could I would go to this group for the rest of my life.  I love what Kids Circle has given to me and my family.  Anytime that I have to miss a class, I get very sad.  I am thankful that the Cancer Support Community offers so much support to the families that need it.  It has been a true blessing that a community can provide this much love and support through the tough times.  If any families need any kind of support this is the place to be. So many things are offered here for everybody.  Most of all we share a lot of love.  I absolutely love the Kids Circle!!!

Thank you & Good Night.. ….