Cancer Survivors Helping Others Cope

Posted: June 09, 1988

Seven years ago, Marilyn Uchitel learned that the tumor in her knee was malignant. A few years later, there was a brush with breast cancer. But today Uchitel is doing fine.

"You cry, then you go ahead and do what is recommended - the operation, the radiation." Then, says Uchitel, "You re-evaluate your life and find out what's important. It isn't the car. It isn't the house. It's your child, your family. Then you think, 'What am I going to do with my life?' "

For Uchitel, the answer was to begin volunteering at the Fox Chase Cancer Center.

"I decided I wanted to give back the support that I got," she said. ''It's really important to have a good support system. That's what really helps you get through it."

More and more people, such as Marilyn Uchitel, are surviving cancer. According to the latest figures from the American Cancer Society, 49 percent of those found to have cancer today will be alive five years from now. Of the five million Americans with a history of cancer, almost 3 million are considered cured.

Although more cancer patients than ever can expect to recover, they still must contend with the physical and emotional consequences of the disease - surgery, the effects of radiation and chemotherapy, the disruption of work, family stress and depression.

Recognizing that no one knows better how to cope with cancer and its treatment than someone who has had it and survived, hospitals and health centers are enlisting the fortunate former patients to help with support groups, peer counseling, classes and group discussions. Doctors are finding that survivors can play a vital role in helping cancer patients rally emotional, physical and spiritual strength.

Vivian Barsky, a surgeon who advises the support group at Metropolitan Hospital's Parkview Division, said she thought the attitude and involvement of a cancer patient could be as important as the medical treatment.

"In 20 years of practice, I've seen maybe 20 people take a negative situation, like cancer, and really turn it around, who take that mountain and really kick the hell out of it," Barsky said.

She describes cancer treatment as a "co-managed effort" between doctor and patient. A big problem for many cancer patients is that they feel helpless, Barsky said. She thinks that a support group often helps empower them.

"There was a great need for this," she said. "As doctors, we're involved with medical treatment. Our time wasn't enough. I try to recommend it to everyone in a gentle way. But at different points of evolution with their disease, sometimes they don't want to hear about it."

Jean Zulli and her husband, Tony, have been attending the Parkview meetings since the meetings began. Zulli, whom Barsky calls "one of the major driving forces" of the group, said that 10 years ago, when she was found to have breast cancer, there weren't any cancer support groups in the area.

"There wasn't anything like it. We waited for years for it to start," she said.

A Rhawnhurst resident who works for the Abington School District, Zulli received a Courage Award on Sunday at the American Cancer Society's Cancer Survivor Day Ceremonies. She says that when dealing with cancer, "morale means everything. You don't say, 'Why did this happen to me?' You say, 'Thank God. I have my eyes, my legs.' I just wanted to go on living."

There was a time, not so long ago, when talking about cancer was something that just wasn't done. The word cancer was akin to a curse. It was a word no one wanted to say out loud.

But times have changed.

"It's not this quiet little disease anymore," says Sis Wichterman, a geriatric nurse whose parents are both cancer survivors. "It's not hush-hush. People are willing to talk about it. Thirty years ago you just expected them to die. Now you can say 'cancer,' and people will say, 'Oh, how is she doing? What kind of treatment is she getting?' "

The special assistance of volunteers such as cancer survivor Uchitel is just one part of a range of programs offered at the Fox Chase Cancer Center, apart from the medical strategy used to attack the disease. The center seeks to help patients cope with the whole experience, body and soul.

It offers a pain management center and a program to help patients adjust to the physical changes brought on by the disease and treatment, such as the hair loss that accompanies chemotherapy. The pastoral care program, which helps patients deal with the spiritual questions posed by a potentially fatal illness, offers a regular schedule of courses and lectures for hospital staff, the public, cancer patients and clergy of all denominations.

Part of this broad range of service is the Fox Chase Cancer Survivors Group, an unusual organization that, according to president Jim Higgins, may be the first of its kind in the country. The group has about 100 members, all of whom are cancer survivors, and is developing a peer counseling program for the hospital. Now, volunteers such as Higgins counsel cancer patients informally.

"I think people who have survived want to give something back," said Higgins, who was found to have colon cancer in 1985. "If a person wants to talk, I tell them my experience and tell them I'm doing fine. People should realize it's not the end of the world. There are times when the doubt overcomes the confidence. But I was pretty upbeat. I was determined to get on my feet as soon as possible."

Higgins said a key to maintaining his upbeat attitude was watching his sister battle and recover from cancer. Despite his own years of treatment, Higgins, a 29-year veteran of the Philadelphia Fire Department and a lieutenant on Rhawnhurst's Ladder 28, says he hasn't missed a day of work in 2 1/2 years.

The support that such cancer survivors give is not just motivational. Higgins' group is developing a cancer discrimination committee to help people who have lost a job or been refused work because they had cancer. The committee will aid legal battles against discrimination by offering "expert" testimony on the subject.

"There is no reason for them (cancer victims) not to return to work," he said. "We are living proof that you can do your job."

Beyond battling the social stigma of cancer, survivors can help cancer patients by sharing the ways they managed to conquer despair in the midst of the unavoidable suffering caused by some cancer treatments.

Nazareth Hospital support group member Lorraine Solecki was found to have cancer eight years ago. She was identified as someone in the "third stage," which meant that the cancer had advanced to a particularly dangerous level. Solecki said her doctors didn't initially give her long to live. She underwent a colostomy, surgery to create an opening in the abdomen for the removal of bodily wastes.

"I've never been someone who is satisfied when someone says, 'This is it,' " she said. "I had too many things on the line to admit to myself that it was over. I had a beautiful life to live."

Solecki said her positive attitude was reinforced by her chemotherapist and her doctor. "It started with him (her doctor - the idea) I was going to make it. Whatever I was going to do - vitamins, exercise, taking walks - he said, 'Try it.' "

Solecki said her determination to survive was taxed after her colostomy.

"That was the pits," she said. "But they said to me, 'It's reversible.' I went with the attitude if it could be, it was going to be. I had that idea in my mind." Eventually it was.

Solecki, who also received a Courage Award at Sunday's Cancer Survivors Day ceremonies on the Parkway, credited the positive reinforcement of her doctors and her family as an aid in her recovery.

"I think everybody had their part in this," she said. "My oldest daughter was a rock. She said 'Mom, you're going to do it.' " Solecki's voice broke with emotion as she talked. "She didn't really believe it herself, but she said it for me. There are a lot of people who have an operation; they just lose their fight. They give up. If you're on this earth, you might as well live a life."

Nan Spinosi, who works in Medical Records at Metropolitan Hospital's Parkview Division, saw an unmet need among cancer patients and decided to start that hospital's cancer support group.

"There was a lot of help physically, with their condition, but not that much with the emotional part. They always wanted to talk more about their feelings," Spinosi said.

The group began meeting in 1982 and now attracts not only cancer patients but also the family and friends of people with cancer.

Spinosi and occupational therapist Karen Mitchell conduct meetings twice a month that are attended by as few as four to as many as 20 people. Three members, two of them cancer survivors, have been with the group since it began.

"That really does a lot for the other patients," said Spinosi, who adds that the sessions are not "sugar-coated."

"There are nights when we talk about dying," she said. "We sit around a table, and it's just like talking to a group of friends. It can be very emotional, and sometimes it's light. The group really seems to know when someone needs something, and they focus on that person."

Fox Chase's Uchitel now works in the center's infusion room, greeting patients coming in for chemotherapy. Each week, she witnesses the terror and dread that the prospect of cancer arouses.

"I know how depressed they feel," she said. "I know what they are going through. There are some that are frightened, some who cry. There is still a fear, and there will be until there is a cure."

Uchitel thinks she can help patients learn to talk about their disease and help them by sharing her own painful memories. But perhaps more important than anything she can say or do, she helps them most by just being there.

Her presence, she says, gives Fox Chase patients a chance "to see someone who has come through and is fine, someone who is now back in society and working and going on with their life."

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