It’s often the case that survivors of a life-threatening disease really know how to celebrate life. They’ve come through all shades of pain and darkness, all levels of physical and emotional strife, to make it to the other side. They know from experience that nothing is guaranteed and each new day is a gift. Certainly, every new holiday season is another opportunity to rejoice in each other’s company – which is exactly what’s happening on Friday when the Oncology Support Program (OSP) of Westchester Medical Center/HealthAlliance Hospital throws its annual Holiday Celebration.
All participants and friends of the OSP are invited to partake of a festive dinner “on the house.” Bring a healthy appetizer or dessert to share, mingle with good friends and meet new ones and enjoy special holiday activities. After dinner, the a cappella group Prana will fill the room with its unique and healing choral music. Group members Amy Fradon, Kirsti Gholson, Baird Hersey, Timothy Hill and Bruce Milner combine life-giving breath with their well-tuned vocal chords to produce sounds that “relax the body, still the mind and open the heart.” It’s sure to be a magical performance.
The OSP, formed in 1994, operates out of the Herbert H. & Sofia P. Reuner Cancer Support House across the street from the Mary’s Avenue Campus of HealthAlliance Hospital, a property that was gifted to the Program in 2008 and is maintained by HealthAlliance. Founded by Barbara Sarah to address the needs of women with breast cancer, it now serves anyone who has experienced or is living with cancer of any sort. A broad selection of services is offered free of charge, including arts and wellness classes, educational events and lectures, integrative/complementary medicine workshops and discussion groups geared to specific needs. A lending library holds books, audiotapes and videos for further inspiration. A cadre of volunteers lends individual expertise in anything from preparing healthful meals to needle felting to learning how to wear a wig to coping with a budget that has been gutted by medical bills.
The greatest draw to the OSP, however, has got to be the staff. Headed by Ellen Marshall and assisted administratively by Doris Blaha, it includes social workers Elise Lark, Valerie Linet and Jennifer Halpern. Together they hold more degrees and certifications and have racked up more combined hours and years of patient/client care than any other program of its kind around. In addition to the general management of the OSP, Marshall facilitates the Linda Young Ovarian Cancer Support Group. Lark facilitates the Being Mortal Group and conducts Advance Directives workshops, while Linet runs the Nurturing Neighbor Program and the Finding Ease and Inner Balance Coping Skills Group. Halpern facilitates the Caregivers’ Group. The Program also has a continuous stream of interns who learn on the job. Currently, Elizabeth Rogers, earning her Master’s in Mental Health Counseling, facilitates the Women’s Cancer Support Group and the Creative Arts Workshop, and Rebecca Heiter now offers music at bedside and chairside during chemo infusion.
“Our programs are open to people dealing with cancer; also to family members who are struggling to support someone with cancer. Basically, we’re a community-based program,” says Marshall, “whether they are attached to HealthAlliance or not. Some people are getting treatment in Poughkeepsie or New York City. We don’t turn anybody away. We have other programs beneficial to the community, like the group called Finding Ease and Inner Balance. Valerie has been trained in mindfulness meditation and somatic experiencing, wherein she uses those techniques to help people regulate their nervous systems. People get challenged dealing with all the anxieties of a cancer diagnosis. She runs a group using those modalities.”
A rough estimate of the number of people served in 2015 includes over 1,000 “contacts” (the counting metric) by OSP social workers at the Support House, 800 hospital visits by OSP social workers, 700 participants in Healing Arts programs, 300 in Support Groups, over 1,200 in Wellness Programs and 325 attendees to special events. The staff makes the smooth running of a complex variety of services look like an active state of joy. Each one seems always to be in action, yet is poised to take care of the next person who walks through the door – whether that’s someone participating in a class or needing assistance, or a doctor from the hospital across the way, or a volunteer arriving to conduct a workshop.
That last category – the volunteers – makes the expansion of programming possible, and at least a few staff members were volunteers before being hired on with the Program. “I started working at OSP as a volunteer,” says Halpern. “At the Caregiver Support Group, we talk about what’s important for our members, and participants have a chance to vent, share ideas, laugh, cry, solve problems or not and have some good snacks. Some folks come once or twice; some have come for almost a year. It’s really important for caregivers to take care of themselves, too. If the caregiver is overwhelmed or exhausted or worried, they really can’t help anyone else.”
Teaming up with Lark to visit cancer inpatients at both the Mary’s Avenue and Broadway campuses, she meets people at every stage of illness. “For some people, it’s their first introduction to cancer, which can be scary,” says Halpern. “Letting them know that OSP is there for them can be very helpful. For others, it’s part of our ongoing support. We help patients and their families adjust to changing circumstances. And when it’s necessary, we can help people learn to say goodbye.”
Fortunately, involvement in OSP often means saying hello to something new. The experience of cancer can be, for all concerned, a debilitating one, but the will to heal and live brings out the best in some people. Life coach Melissa Eppard joined with Linet to facilitate the Younger Women’s Support Group after having experienced a bout of breast cancer at 36. She felt the need for connection with other young women who had been through treatment themselves. “I struggled with how to reclaim my life and continue living with so much uncertainty after losing my job, my strength, a year of my life, my hair, my breasts and, to a large degree, my femininity and outward beauty,” she says. She contacted the Young Survival Coalition and took the training to be a peer mentor and group facilitator at the same time that the OSP announced its newly forming group. After a few meetings, Linet asked her to co-facilitate as a peer mentor to other young women survivors.
Longtime volunteer Ujjala Schwartz runs the Healthy Living Group, focusing on food that nourishes the body, mind and spirit. She formerly developed the Smart Bells movement class, now taught by Angel Ortloff. Schwartz received a grant from the Lance Armstrong Foundationto do the Smart Bells class. “It was my first entry into the OSP. Then I started teaching cooking classes and writing articles, and I was a Breast Navigator [a program that goes out into the community to educate underserved populations of women about women’s health issues]. Now I’m a Nurturing Neighbor. The staff tries to bring great programs in for everyone, including people that work at the hospital. They’ve expanded to include diabetes and diet in some of the classes in cooking. It’s a lot more than just cancer. It’s about health and fitness, support and nurturing. It’s one of the best programs in the Hudson Valley, as far as I’m concerned.”
Other exercise classes include Gentle Yoga, taught by Deb Albright, Qigong, taught by Jeff Bartfeld, and Tai Chi, taught by Annie LaBarge. “I’ve been volunteering for 15 years, and I really love it,” says LaBarge. “Never know who’s going to walk in the door: someone struggling with cancer or someone else from the community. It’s such a thrill to see people learn this challenging practice, to see them get totally absorbed in something and relax as a result, to see them become graceful and proud of their bodies. People affected by chemo, surgery or an accident – who have been affected cognitively – to watch them become aware and confident, to move more smoothly, to watch someone with breast cancer use both her arms, to see elderly people express themselves by moving some part of their bodies…it’s just amazing.”
Abigail Thomas, who facilitates one of the Memoir Writing Workshops, volunteered to “teach a class for a few weeks” after her daughter had breast cancer. Thomas wanted to give back to the Program that had helped her own loved one in a time of crisis – and her workshop was so successful and long-lasting that the OSP opened a second one, now facilitated by yours truly. I can attest to the value of contributing one’s time and talent and energy to a program committed to honoring “the spectrum of human diversity and promoting dignity, wellness and the celebration of the fullness of life.”
Rounding out the regularly meeting OSP offerings, a Men’s Cancer Support Group is facilitated by Tom Tuthill, Melissa Sakellariou runs a Six-Week Wellness & Weight Management Series, Rob Kilpert manages the Gardens for Healing Program (I was not able to talk with everyone) and, last but not least, the Happy Miso Cooking Club is facilitated by Kathy Sheldon. Plant-based, macrobiotic cooking has been considered highly beneficial for people with cancer, and Sheldon, a longtime vegetarian, came to it when her husband had leukemia. “When he was ill, I wanted to support his endeavor to get released from that. I shifted everything. I went to classes and learned. My husband escaped the not-so-good prospects of surviving cancer. I don’t say it was all because of the diet, but that was my impulse: to move in that direction.”
At first Sheldon’s class was called a “study group,” for which she would drag up pots and pans to the third floor of the administration building to introduce people to a new way of cooking and eating. When the Reuner House was acquired, she realized that her direction would be to feed people – to introduce them, little by little, to a more wholesome way of cooking and eating. “Over time, even if they were coming to my class only once a week, they would feel different. They would get that nourishment and leave differently than when they came in. Many of these people were cancer survivors. Those who were in the middle of treatment were not often up to coming. But if they’d come to the class with this open mind about how they could prevent further cancer with diet, my point was that we can only limit certain things that come into our bodies: of what we put into our mouths. A plant-based diet does provide the resources to stay healthy. It’s a lifestyle, not just a diet.”
Sheldon talks about engaging other healthful cooking experts to come in and do classes at the Reuner House. Marshall reiterates how classes are formed. “We’ve had a dietician from Shop-Rite do a six-week wellness program that was open to the whole community. Normally, either cancer survivors or people who are really great cooks come in to do a program. Our healthy living classes are about how to prepare easy, tasty, healthy food, especially for people who are dealing with treatment. When it comes to cancer, diet is a major risk factor. We make this more about creating a healthy community. And there are people who are dealing with cancer who are like, ‘I don’t know what to cook, and I’m tired from chemo…’”
These are considerations that most of us, thankfully, don’t have to entertain. If you do, get in touch with the OSP. You will not be left high and dry. As Sheldon says, “The OSP makes a difference in people healing and having support during the process, and with families being supported, and creating community and prevention. And there’s this other conversation in terms of feeling good about what you’re doing and providing something that you know is going to go with people into their families and into the future.”
OSP’s annual Holiday Celebration takes place at the HealthAlliance auditorium at 75 Mary’s Avenue in Kingston from 6 to 8:30 p.m. on Friday, December 2. Admission is free, but donations are greatly appreciated and needed. Call (845) 339-2071 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP for the event. See https://bit.ly/2gHcqei and https://bit.ly/2fP4MPZ to learn more about the OSP’s other offerings, including a vast referral database, and ways in which you might contribute.