Lightening the load

The Cancer Resource Center provides a lifeline for people coping with the disease.

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First comes the dread one feels when told he or she has cancer.

Then comes the long trek through treatments and recovery.

And when the journey also descends into financial hardships, emotional lows and difficulties in handling the business of basic day-to-day life, as it often does, the road can seem impassable.

For people in the Walla Walla Valley who’ve been diagnosed with cancer, help, hope and encouragement on their journey back to health has never been more available than it is today. That’s largely due to The American Cancer Society’s Walla Walla Cancer Resource Center at Providence St. Mary Medical Center’s Regional Cancer Center.

The resource center, established in February 2011 and run entirely by volunteers, provides a wealth of information and support.

Services are available for free to any cancer patient, family and caregiver, not just patients at the hospital, said Jean Carwile Masteller, lead chairperson and volunteer at the CRC.

“In January the resource center served 39 individuals, many several times,” Masteller said. Of those 25 were newly diagnosed with cancer within the last year.

Jan Rose, director of St. Mary’s Regional Cancer Center, said the program offers relief to the powerlessness cancer victims can feel.

“Oftentimes they are worried about not enough money, not good enough coverage, not good transportation, no lodging,” she said. “Patients are often overwhelmed and feel like giving up before they even begin.”

Freddy and Linda Johnson of Pendleton came to use the CRC after she was diagnosed with cancer and came to Walla Walla for follow-up radiation treatments.

“She disappeared back there and I was sitting in the waiting room,” Freddy Johnson said. “The volunteers came out and introduced themselves to me and informed me about the things available. There are no words to describe the support, whether financially, the moral support having someone just sitting there with me while my wife was taking those treatments. It’s nice to have someone to talk to.”

“A lot of what we do is listen,” Masteller said. It’s a key ingredient to the success of the program, which also comes with appointment transportation services, money for gasoline and lodging, wigs for patients who’ve lost their hair due to treatments, educational materials and other support.

“The American Cancer Society provides all materials; they are all reviewed by medical specialists, so it’s good information,” Masteller said. The money raised by the local Relay For Life events help fund these programs. Area groups also raise funds for the CRC, such as the YMCA’s Zumba Party For a Cause last October and the Milton-Freewater Christmas Cotillion in December.

The first thing patients receive is a personal health manager. The manager is a folding file for notes, bills, explanation of benefits and other important papers for someone starting out on their journey to help them organize to deal with feeling overwhelmed.

Maintaining one’s appearance is also important to the emotional side of recovery.

Once a month the Look Good, Feel Better skin care and makeup program for women offers patients a chance to get together to talk, share experiences and have some fun as well as learn about cosmetics, scarves and other tips to help them feel better.

“A group of giggling girls is hard to resist. It goes past all language barriers,” said Yvonne Cummings, a recovering cancer patient who needed a little coaxing to participate, especially when she was feeling exhausted and down.

“At first it was just so hard to say ‘yes,’” she said. “Jean held my hand and encouraged me to go many times, especially when I was feeling that low.”

Also, though not everyone loses their hair during treatments, the program offers wigs that come from the American Cancer Society.

Something new, Masteller said, is the Road to Recovery program. Approved volunteer drivers will provide transportation to and from appointments.

The CRC’s volunteers are the engines in the program, and more are always welcome. Masteller, herself a breast cancer survivor, estimates that about half of the volunteers are cancer survivors but they’ve all been touched by the disease in some way.

Volunteers go through two, three-hour classroom training sessions then shadow a seasoned volunteer for at least two shifts. Then two shifts solo with a mentor here.

A shift is four hours, once a week. The CRC operates business hours, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday, although they don’t have volunteer coverage for all of it yet.

Rose credits the volunteers as having empathy, knowledge and effective communication skills. They are well trained and attend continuing education sessions to stay up to date.

Cancer patient Pam Taylor would agree.

“It has been so helpful,” she said of the CRC. “The first time I was in the Cancer Center, one of the volunteers came up to me and gave me a whole packet of information. The volunteers are so compassionate with all the trials and tribulations you go through. It is quite a service to the community.”

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