Gilda’s Club offers comfort, respite from cancer

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — Judy Joiner smiled and announced she has two birthdays.

The day she was born and the day she received a stem cell transplant.

Joiner, 69, recently became a member at Gilda’s Club Evansville and acknowledged having cancer is a trying process. Gilda’s is a place for people of all ages to share personal experiences and learn more about cancer. It’s also important to find opportunities to laugh along the way just like the club’s namesake, American comedian and actress Gilda Radner.

Joiner, who has lived in Evansville since 1976, said the community is blessed to have Gilda’s. Joiner was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2005, a rare blood cancer, but has been in remission since the August 2005 transplant of her own stem cells and chemotherapy treatments.

“The procedure that you have to go through can be kind of heavy,” she told the Evansville Courier & Press (http://bit.ly/1jeQtBh ). “And to have somebody just look at you and smile and give you a hug, that means a lot. And I think it feels very comfortable here (at Gilda’s Club).”

The late Ann Moore, along with her husband Randy Moore, initiated opening a Gilda’s Club in Evansville. When Ann died July 3, 2009, from pancreatic cancer, her family, friends and community kept the effort alive.

Gilda’s runs on a staff of three women — Melanie Atwood, Diana Brown and Angie Bakel — and more than 40 community volunteers. Each woman has her own role — Atwood is the face to the donors, Brown is the face to the members and Bakel coordinates everything in the clubhouse.

The organization relies on sponsorships and donations for sustainability of the 75-mile radius it covers. And Gilda’s comes at no cost to members. With only a soft opening last month, members continue to trickle in — nine the first week, five the second — and Atwood said it’s a nice mix of men, women and kids.

“It’s kind of like build it, and they will come,” she said. “And they all are.”

One in two men and one in three women will get cancer at some point in their lifetime, according to Atwood, executive director. Her father-in-law is living with cancer, her grandma died from cancer and she has had several friends taken by the disease while others still live with it.

Atwood can’t think of a better place to work because every day the group is helping make a difference for other people.

“We’re just an extension of your home an extension of your support group, however small or large it is, we’re a part of that now,” she said. “And to be able to provide that fuels me.”

Gilda’s Club offers cancer support services to those living with cancer, family members or friends through five core programs: support services, educational programs, healthy lifestyle activities, social and recreational activities, and resources and referral. Atwood said the Grand Opening is scheduled for Feb. 6.

A stone can’t be thrown very far without hitting someone that has a connection to cancer, said Brown, program director. You are either a cancer patient; a family member of someone living with cancer; a friend; a co-worker, the list is nearly endless.

“It’s not about helping,” Brown said. “It’s truly about meeting people where they are and empowering them and providing services that no one else really is providing on a full scale level like we are.”

Brown’s father died of colon cancer, and she’s had several good friends who are living with or have had cancer. A licensed clinical social worker and an oncology certified social worker, Brown moved back to her home city of Evansville after working in oncology for more than six years in Nevada. She said this is the most meaningful position of her 20-year career.

“Our job is to not treat medically, but our job is to pick up those pieces emotionally and on a psychosocial level,” Brown said. “And wrap our arms around them and wrap our services around them so that they can be able to have that emotional strength and the support of other members who might be going through similar things. That is truly what Gilda’s Club is about, a sense of community, a sense of belonging.”

Programs and events can include potluck meals, teen yoga, sleepovers, cooking classes, family board game night and a walking group

But Brown urged that it’s not a one size fits all kind of programing, there will be something for everyone, and she solicits help from members to customize their individual interests and needs.

Bakel, clubhouse coordinator, is a two-and-a-half year breast cancer survivor and her mom is a three-time breast cancer survivor. Bakel worked at Springleaf Financial for about 28 years but wanted a change after her journey with cancer.

“When you go through an event like that, your life changes,” she said. “So definitely my life priorities changed to give back, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Joiner said her knitting group thought Gilda’s would be a nice place to hold meetings the first and third Monday of every month. When going through cancer treatments, she said sometimes you need to step away from your home and go somewhere you feel safe.

“There’s a lot of unknowns when you’re going through treatment,” Joiner said. “You don’t know how you’re going to feel. You don’t know what the medicine is going to do to you. So in between doctor’s visits, it’s nice to have a cup of coffee or a place to just cry if you want.”

According to Atwood, it’s a humbling and invigorating experience for anyone involved in Gilda’s.

“We get to share a very raw time with people on the journey. … It’s a lot of different emotions, but we’re blessed to be able to share that path and come alongside them in support a variety of ways,” she said.

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Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Evansville Courier & Press.

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