Ways To Wellness: Cancer Support In The Lehigh Valley

By Susan Stets

While a diagnosis of cancer—of any type—can make someone feel alone quite quickly, there is a plethora of support available for those dealing with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy in the Lehigh Valley. Thankfully, there is no need to “go it alone.”

While some cancer survivors seek support services right away–either on the advice of their doctor or a loved one–others wait until the initial surgery is over. Still others put it off until chemotherapy and the like are over, wanting to deal with one thing at a time. For most survivors, though, connecting with others who have lived through a similar experience is a vitally important part of recovery.

Long-term breast cancer survivor Mary Cameron agrees. “You have to talk to other survivors,” she says. “That’s the way to live.”

Diagnosed in 2003 with stage IIIB inflammatory breast cancer, Mary was given a 28 percent chance of surviving two years. After life-saving surgery and treatment at Lehigh Valley Health Network, Mary has been cancer-free for three years now. “I’m a living miracle,” she says.

She credits her physicians and the drugs she was given for her miraculous recovery but just as important, she adds, are the support services she received from a program called the Support of Survivors (SOS) Helpline, a free 24-hour telephone line that connects callers with a dedicated voice mailbox. Recorded calls are returned by a knowledgeable, trained breast cancer survivor who is qualified to provide information and support tailored to the individual caller.

So in those dark hours when survivors feel they can’t turn to anyone else, someone will be there to guide them over the rough spots, to share, or just listen—someone who has been where they are now.

“You can even call them in the middle of the night,” Mary says. “I did. It’s reassuring to know there’s someone there for you.”

Another place to connect with assistance is the Cancer Support Community (formerly known as the Wellness Community). With 25 sites across the country, this nationwide nonprofit organization provides information, support and hope to people with cancer and their loved ones, using professionally led support groups, educational workshops and mind/body/spirit classes in a home-like setting. And it’s free of charge.

“This has become my second home and sanctuary,” says Carol*, a participant of the program housed in the organization’s cozy old farmhouse nestled amid a stand of trees off Bath Pike in a bustling Bethlehem neighborhood.

“My family is very supportive,” she continues, “but they can’t really understand, because they haven’t been through it. Here I can talk to other survivors and share my true feelings and concerns. When I come home from here, I am refreshed, rejuvenated and ready to fight my cancer. My attitude is positive and I look forward to my next class.”

Whether you choose to browse through the elegantly-paneled reference library that used to be a den, curl up in a comfy wing chair near the tile-trimmed fireplace, or gather with others around the kitchen table, there’s the sense you’re visiting the home of a good friend.

“The building is warm and I always feel comfortable inside,” Teresa, another participant, says of the homey atmosphere.

Diagnosis aside, anyone who is here today is a survivor, says Jennifer Sinclair, M.Ed., NCC, LPC, Program Director and Clinical Facilitator. “There is a special dynamic when group members share with others who are walking through the cancer experience. The empowering messages they instill in others, the artwork and creative writing that surprises even themselves at times, and the generosity within our participants and volunteers is touching beyond words.”

“One size doesn’t necessarily fit all,” says Sinclair, and that’s true.

Some people choose to go it alone, while others want emotional or moral support. Others immerse themselves in clinical research, or need help dealing with the confusing maze of financial and insurance issues. And then there are those who just want to feel pretty. And why shouldn’t they, says Diane Rizzetto, owner of Bellezza Hair and Body Café in Allentown. “We help our clients create wellness of body, mind and spirit,” reads part of Bellezza’s mission statement.

Rizzetto saw a need for in-home and hospital beauty services about 30 years ago. When she was later diagnosed with breast cancer, it gave her even greater insight into her clients’ needs.

“I went through the cancer thing,” she says. “I know they don’t want to go out and be among people if they don’t feel they look good. If you do the right makeup, it makes you feel pretty, and that’s important to your recovery.”

You have to talk to other survivors…that’s the way to live

If someone is unable to leave the house, Rizzetto’s staff will provide in-home hair styling, nails, facials, make-up or massage. In addition, Rizzetto has a contract for beauty services with St. Luke’s and Sacred Heart Hospitals, and local nursing homes, where residents line up with great anticipation to get their hair done.

“Be your own advocate,” advises Eva Grayzel, oral cancer survivor and motivational speaker.

Diagnosed with advanced stage oral cancer in 1998 after several doctors failed to catch the warning signs, Eva underwent a partial tongue reconstruction, a modified radical neck dissection and massive radiation.

Through it all, she wished there was someone she could talk to—someone who had made it through the same surgery, treatment and recovery. “There is nothing like talking to someone who’s been through it,” she says.

“Only 35,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer every year, so there’s not much information out there” she says. The best resource that Eva has found is oralcancer.org.

“I do what I do because I have had this miraculous recovery,” Eva says of her mission to help others through speaking engagements, workshops, books and promotion of screening awareness—the most important thing. “How could I let the same thing happen to someone else if I could prevent it?”

Her best advice is to get screened (SixStepScreening.org) because oral cancer, like many other types, usually is curable if treated early. If the worst happens, find a physician who has a lot of experience with the kind of cancer surgery you need, she says. “Who better to tell you what might work for you?”

Eva’s book, You Are Not Alone: Families Touched by Cancer, shares touching stories of adults and children dealing with cancer in varying ways. We in the Lehigh Valley are fortunate that, should the need arise and we need support, there’s a good chance that someone will be there to help: a shoulder to cry on, a website or a book, a refuge or a manicure—support takes many forms, as one size, truly, does not fit all.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Susan Stets has written for national publications including American Profile Magazine and Delta’s Sky Magazine, as well as publications in Berks, Bucks, Lehigh and Montgomery Counties. Susan fell in love with the Lehigh Valley on assignments to The Crayola Factory and C.F. Martin & Company, and moved here in 2005. The warmth and generosity of the people, as well as the region’s physical beauty and musical and creative traditions, are what drew her here.

Follow @LehighValleyMarketplace on Instagram