Gilda’s offers support to those with cancer

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For nearly two years Bradley Thompson and his family supported his wife, Linda, during her battle with stage IV breast cancer. He often wondered what he could do to help his family better cope with the situation.

But through the help of a local organization, he, his wife and his two children, 12 and 16 at the time, found support. They found a place to laugh, a place to vent-basically a place to cope with the expected and unexpected ills of the disease.

healingfoods
HEALING FOODS—Chef Lionel Hong-Long gives a cooking demonstration to participants for the Gilda’s Club National Minority Cancer Health Awareness Month Celebration April 14 and discusses how healthy eating can help the treatment process.

On Dec. 20, 2009, Linda lost her battle, but her family found a way to get through it, all because of Gilda’s Club and its belief that social and emotional support is just as important as medical care when it comes to battling cancer.

“For me it helped a lot, and for the family,” Thompson said. He added that before the club, his wife’s reaction, “was like ‘I’m a time bomb waiting to explode,’” but by her attending the support groups and activities, “it made everything that much better” and gave her a different outlook.

Gilda’s Club Western Pennsylvania, located in the Strip District, is an innovative program that compliments medical care, by offering free informative information, support groups, workshops, networking and social activities to those touched by cancer, no matter what race, gender or age.

“It doesn’t just touch the person with the diagnosis, it touches the whole family,” said Colleen Dwyer, program director for Gilda’s Club. “Gilda’s Club has an uplifting atmosphere. It’s not just a place where you can cry, but it’s also a place where you can learn and laugh. It is empowering to interact with people who know what you’re going through.”

Gilda’s Club was created by Cynthia Stanish and her husband, after a visit to the original Gilda’s Club in New York City, which is named after Gilda Radner, a “Saturday Night Live” comedian, and in 2006 they opened their doors on Smallman Street. Since opening its doors, Dwyer said there have been about 1500 members and around 700 active members per year.

According to the American Cancer Society website, in 2011 there was an estimate of 88,860 new cases of cancer in African-American men and 80,040 in African-American women. In 2007, cancer was the second leading cause of medical death among African-Americans, behind heart disease. And the third leading cause among African-American children age 1-14.

Dwyer said in the last five or ten years, there seems to have been an increase in cancer cases.

Gilda’s offers various support groups, such as Teen Talk, Wellness and Friends/Family; workshops and lectures on topics such as talking to children about cancer, managing side effects, yoga, journaling, cooking and more; and various networking groups.

Thompson said he found peace attending the support groups, especially in the one geared toward spouses of individuals diagnosed with cancer. He said they discussed what to expect and the emotions they felt.

“The best part was that our group was in a room next to her’s (Linda’s group) and their group was so lively, so joyful. It lifted her spirits, (which) lifted mine. It made her feel like, ‘okay I’m not doomed,’” he said.

Like Thompson, Debi Diggs, a volunteer, said the facility is a great place because it has something for both patients and caregivers. “More people need to go check out what’s behind the red door,” Diggs said.

While cancer can affect all races, Gilda’s Club would like to see an increase in their membership of African-Americans, and minorities in general. According to Dwyer, approximately 9-10 percent of their members are African-Americans. In an effort to bring awareness to their organization and celebrate National Minority Cancer Health Awareness Month, the club held a “Reach Out and Touch—We’re In This Together” event on April 14, which was an open house for individuals to learn and experience what Gilda’s has to offer. They held cooking demonstrations, workshops on relaxation and a jewelry making activity. There was also an upbeat drum circle, for guests to feel the intense energy of Gilda’s.

“Cancer has no color, it touches everyone. We have something for everyone,” said Dwyer.

Although Thompson’s wife lost her battle, he said Gilda’s helped he and his family even after through their Bereavement Group. “It made things 100 percent (better). There still are hard times and issues we deal with,” said Thompson, but adds that they are surviving.

(Memberships for Gilda’s are free and new members meetings are held every week. For more information on the organization, call 412-338-1919 or visit http://www.gildasclub­western­pa.org.)

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