Harriet Benjamin dies at 85; cancer patient inspired innovative support network

Harriet Benjamin, whose breast cancer battle inspired the Wellness Community, an innovative support network for cancer patients and their families, died April 7 at her Marina del Rey home. She was 85.

Benjamin was cancer-free for more than 35 years after her initial diagnosis in 1972. Her death came five months after she was found to have lung cancer, said her daughter, Ann.

The Wellness Community was founded in 1982 by Benjamin's husband, Harold, who gave up a thriving Beverly Hills law practice to open a center in Santa Monica that he hoped would fill a void in the cancer treatment world by focusing on the social and emotional health of cancer patients. Within two years the center, seeded with $250,000 from the Benjamins, was offering 25 support groups a week at no cost to the patients or their family members.

After merging recently with Gilda’s Club, a similar organization named for the late "Saturday Night Live" comedian Gilda Radner after her death from ovarian cancer, the Wellness Community now operates under the banner of the Cancer Support Community, which last year served more than 350,000 people in the United States and three other countries. It has been hailed as a model of psychosocial aid that can help enhance the life of cancer patients.

Benjamin, who led orientation meetings for newcomers to the West Los Angeles Wellness Community and helped train others to lead them, was "the heart and soul of our organization," said Cancer Support Community President Kim Thiboldeaux. "It was a brave and bold move for her years ago to decide she was going to be very public about her own cancer experience. She did not want people to face cancer alone."

Her attitude was molded by the experience she had living with her husband, two children and mother in Synanon, the controversial drug rehabilitation community in Santa Monica founded by Charles Dederich, who coined the phrase "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." The Benjamins, who lived there from 1968 to 1975, were "squares," non-addicts who joined the community because of its utopian values. They left before Dederich turned it into a cult and was implicated in a rattlesnake attack on a Synanon critic.

Both Benjamin and her husband later said that the positive aspects of Synanon life helped her cope with breast cancer in 1972.

"Because at that time Harold and I were involved in a social movement in Santa Monica based on self-reliance, I knew that it was important that I fight for my recovery and not be passive in the face of adversity," she said in "The Wellness Community Guide to Fighting for Recovery from Cancer" written by her husband. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy and educated herself so that she could "be partners with my medical team" to fight the disease.

She credited her active stance as a patient as an important factor in the long period of good health that followed her cancer treatment. Her husband said that another factor was the support she received from their Synanon friends, who did not react to her illness with "knee-jerk sympathy" or avoidance. "To them, she was the same Harriet Benjamin she had been before the operation," he wrote, "except she had cancer. . . . I know that it was then that I learned, on some subconscious level, that camaraderie, togetherness, and support have a beneficial effect on people with serious illness."

Benjamin, who was born in Hammonton, N.J., on June, 2, 1924, met her husband when both were students at Penn State University, where she earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in business and social economics. They were married in 1947. She worked as an agricultural researcher at Cornell University while her husband attended its law school, but stopped working when daughter Ann was born in 1949. A second daughter, Lauren, was born in 1952.

She moved with her family to Los Angeles in 1964 and later worked as a travel agent. For several years before and after her bout with breast cancer, she was known for driving in West Los Angeles on a cherry-red Honda motorcycle.

Every Friday for the last five years she led meetings for new cancer patients at the Westside Wellness Community. She helped others open up about the challenges they were facing by talking about her own experiences and the importance of not giving in to the isolating nature of the disease.

She was known for bringing fresh strawberries to every meeting from the local farmer's market. "Those strawberries were way more than strawberries," said Executive Director Ellen Silver. "She knew they symbolized sweetness and also the prickly nature of life."

Harold Benjamin died in 2004. In addition to her daughters, she leaves a grandson and two great-grandchildren. A memorial service is being planned for May.

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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