A soothing touch for cancer's ills

Reiki practitioners Diane Strassle (left), and Marcy McGuire touch Patsy Walker, 60, a pancreatic cancer patient, in a quiet room at Abington Memorial Hospital.
Reiki practitioners Diane Strassle (left), and Marcy McGuire touch Patsy Walker, 60, a pancreatic cancer patient, in a quiet room at Abington Memorial Hospital. (ANDREW RENNEISEN / Staff Photographer)

Gilda's Club teams up with hospitals to provide support sooner and more easily.

Posted: July 15, 2013

Diane Strassle and Marcy McGuire, Reiki practitioners from Gilda's Club Delaware Valley, greeted Patsy Walker kindly as she was wheeled into a conference room at Abington Memorial Hospital.

This was to be her first experience with the Japanese healing art, an alternative treatment that uses gentle, sustained touch to transmit energy.

Walker, a striking woman with long blond hair, was silent, her head down. "Take a deep breath," McGuire told her. "Let out all that tension."

"I have pancreatic cancer," Walker, 60, whispered. She told them she had been very depressed.

As the women moved their hands to places they thought needed energy, Walker brightened. She marveled at the way her body responded to the touch, to the heat of Strassle's hands. "Ya'll got the warmest hands I ever felt," Walker said in a strong Georgia accent.

"The energy is flowing," Strassle said happily.

Walker, who is living with her daughter-in-law in Horsham, was a fan by the time she went back to her room in the oncology unit. "It was very, very relaxing," she said.

There was a time when groups like Gilda's Club, which was founded in 1995 in memory of comedian Gilda Radner to provide support for cancer patients, stayed away from hospitals. Patients went to hospitals for treatments that made them feel terrible, and they didn't want to go back unless they absolutely had to.

Now, trends are converging to make partnerships between hospitals and support organizations more attractive. Gilda's Club, which merged with what is now the Cancer Support Community in 2009, is providing services at Abington, Doylestown Hospital and St. Mary Medical Center. The hospitals pay a fee; patients don't.

The local branch of the Support Community, formerly the Wellness Community of Philadelphia, has support groups in Paoli and Mercy Philadelphia hospitals and Einstein's cancer center. It offers a post-treatment program called Cancer Transitions at Chester County Hospital.

Linda House, an oncology nurse who is the Support Community's executive vice president for external affairs, said hospital programs are growing partly because the American College of Surgeons' Commission on Cancer will soon require hospitals to provide social and emotional support for accreditation as comprehensive cancer centers. "Our services meet those requirements," she said.

Gilda's Club in New York will soon open satellites in two more hospitals, said Lily Sofani, its CEO. "Over the years, we've come to realize that patients cannot, all of them, travel to our clubhouse. If we really want to reach everyone in New York City, we have to travel and we have to bring our program to hospitals."

Kelly Harris, CEO of the Delaware Valley chapter, said the work in hospitals has helped attract members: "We felt that we could reach patients earlier in their cancer diagnosis if we had a presence in their hospitals".

Abington came on board two years ago, with programming for both inpatients and outpatients. Oncology social worker Mary Oleksiak said the program frees her to focus on the practical concerns - How will I get to appointments? How will I pay my bills? "It allows our patients to avail themselves of a much wider range of support."

She's getting good feedback from patients. "They feel like they're learning some skills and some tools to help relieve the stress."

Rebecca Zuspan, a social worker, is in charge of Gilda's Club programming at Abington and Doylestown. It includes support groups, informational sessions about nutrition, and other health topics, and classes on beaded jewelry, art, and journaling. A popular topic: Using Anxiety for Positive Change. On a recent stormy Monday at Abington, there were three offerings: chair yoga, a breast cancer group, and Reiki.

Bernice Starrantino, 82, of Abington, who had just finished treatment for lymphoma, and Kathy Bott, 61, of Horsham, whose husband was treated for colon cancer, came for the yoga.

To soft music, teacher Anna-Sara Fire urged them to breathe slowly and deeply. "Use this breath to slow your mind down," she said soothingly. She then led them through easy stretches and a meditation that encouraged them to love even people they find annoying.

Starrantino said yoga helps her arthritis pain. Bott likes starting her week this way. "It just releases a lot of stored-up stuff," she said. "It's kind of like a fresh awakening."

Zuspan then led the breast cancer group, which drew Diane Waeltz, a 47-year-old nurse, and a 62-year-old Wyndmoor woman who did not want her name used because she hasn't told everyone she has cancer. Both had small tumors that were diagnosed recently. Waeltz just finished radiation, and the Wyndmoor woman has a few radiation treatments left.

They needed no prompting to talk about the feelings that only fellow cancer patients understand. "It's just not the same unless you've walked the walk," Waeltz said.

"There are days I can deal and days I've spent the entire day crying from morning till night," the older woman said. "You mourn the past. You fear the future. You're in purgatory."

Zuspan, who is 37 and has not had cancer, said meditation can help with anger, anxiety, and frustration. It also helps to accept that those feelings are normal and to practice being comfortable with them.

Then Zuspan was off to Reiki, where even a skeptical patient praised Strassle and McGuire. "Your touch was extremely calming," he told them. "You must have a magic."

Zuspan, whose stepmother and mother-in-law died of cancer, said it can be sad to be around cancer patients all day, but she's come to see her work with Gilda's Club as an opportunity for "life learning." The patients, she said, seem to have extra emotional sensitivity and recognize that there's a "preciousness to life that needs to be honored."

More Information

Information and schedules for Gilda's Club events:


Phone: 215-441-3290

Contact staff writer Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or sburling@phillynews.com.

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