A Place for Hope : Ventura County Cancer Patients May Get Wellness Community to Aid Fight

Times Staff Writer

"I couldn't get inside fast enough to be nourished by other cancer patients, and to know I was not alone . . . I could never buy what I got there, not ever."

--Gilda Radner

What the late comedian got at the Wellness Community in Santa Monica may soon be available to cancer patients and their families in Ventura County, say organizers of a move to establish the nationally recognized program here.

Radner, whose tag line, "It's always something," provided an ironic title for her book about her struggle with cancer, wrote of a deep-rooted support provided by other patients and staff members at the Wellness Community, a nonprofit organization offering an array of free seminars, counseling sessions and social activities.

Radner, who died in May, earmarked part of the proceeds of her book for the 7-year-old group.

But even before her death focused public attention on the Wellness Community, a group of doctors, nurses, cancer patients and others in the Conejo Valley were planning to set up a branch in Ventura County.

Similar Efforts

Similar campaigns are under way at five other locations in California, as well as in Knoxville, Tenn., and Chicago.

The Ventura County group, which consists of about 130 residents, has raised more than $50,000 of the $200,000 anticipated for first-year operating costs, said Marty Nason, a registered nurse and mental health counselor who is helping spearhead the drive.

Organizers are staging fund-raisers--including a classical music recital Sunday at North Ranch Country Club--scouring the state for grants and putting together a campaign to woo corporate donations.

The activity is all aimed at replicating the Santa Monica program. The Wellness Community offers workshops about such suddenly important matters as health insurance and nutrition. It teaches patients techniques for relaxation. And it provides groups where patients draw each other out of a twilight of anguish and even learn to crack jokes about their disease.

But the program is not intended to replace medical treatments. "It's always stressed that if you had to choose one or the other, it would be most important to choose traditional medicine," said Nason, who has counseled cancer patients for more than 20 years.

Even as established an organization as the American Cancer Society refers patients to the Wellness Community. Barbara Broide, director of the society's L. A. Coastal Cities Unit, said her volunteers frequently drive them to the Santa Monica headquarters.

Long Commute

About two dozen Ventura County residents commute to the Wellness Community in Santa Monica each week, but Nason said the hour's drive is too much for many patients. The only other operating Wellness Community is even farther away, in Redondo Beach.

In Santa Monica, more than 8,000 people have received help since the program's start, and 500 patients and family members attend self-help groups and seminars every week, group leaders say.

Participants fight for their recovery in an atmosphere of hope, support and learning, said Harold Benjamin, the organization's founder and unpaid national executive director.

"The people who come here come here because they are fighters. They're not giving up on themselves," said Benjamin, an attorney and social psychologist.

Inside the modest yellow house that serves as the Wellness Community's headquarters, sofas and chairs line the muted peach walls, which are decorated with photographs of smiling and laughing participants.

At a recent group discussion meeting, about 25 newcomers heard facilitators Flo Porter and Betty Boltuch, both cancer survivors, describe how the Wellness Community operates.

Before long, the conversation grew animated, alternately punctuated with laughter and tears.

Eddye, a colon cancer patient, told the group how she pictures her chemotherapy as miniature Pac Men gobbling cancer cells. Tina, a tall, tanned breast cancer patient, drew roars of laughter by telling how her 3-year-old nephew believes that her cancer is a severe case of flea infestation.

Rodney, 85, a tall man with a booming voice, talks of his struggle with despair over his terminal prognosis. His downy white hair is just starting to grow back after falling out from chemotherapy. He strokes his sprouting pate affectionately.

As the meeting unfolded, there was laughter, pain, sorrow and joy.

"I felt terribly isolated, terribly alone--nobody understood what I was going through," said Henia, a former breast cancer patient. "But here I found people who didn't really know me yet cared so much for me."

Other Wellness Community veterans echo those sentiments.

Liver cancer patient Beverly Ginsberg, 40, of Woodland Hills said she might not be alive today were it not for the support of fellow cancer patients who talked her into undergoing lifesaving chemotherapy.

Hair Loss

"When we first went to the Wellness Community, I said I wasn't going to take the chemo and they got crazy on me. They said, 'Well, do you want to live or do you want to die?' And I said, 'I don't want to lose my hair.' And they said, 'Oh, get off of it.' "

Ginsberg did lose her hair, but it has grown back. To see her now, one might never guess that she continues to battle cancer. Like many cancer patients, she doesn't have the gaunt look often associated with the disease.

Doctors told Ginsberg in 1987 that she only had four months to live. Although she has survived, the cancer has spread throughout her body and she has more recently been told that she must take weekly chemotherapy as long as she lives.

Facing such a proposition, especially when many other cancer patients are counting down to the end of their treatments, makes for a lot of anger, Ginsberg said.

"But at the Wellness Community, I'm able to vent it and get it out there and be angry," she said. "If you can't take some anger, and some prodding, and some laughing about cancer, it's not a place for you. It's not a place for people who feel sorry for themselves. They may start out that way, but they sure don't finish that way."

Credits Program

Bob Loken, a 54-year-old attorney from Thousand Oaks, can no longer regularly commute to Santa Monica because of his cancer. But he credits the Wellness Community with providing major psychological help during the earlier stages of the disease.

Loken had prostate cancer for more than 1 1/2 years before he finally decided to tell his mother, although other family members knew. He said he could not have accomplished the feat alone.

"I said, 'I'm thinking of her,' and they said, 'Don't think of her; think of you, because it's got to emotionally be a drain,' " Loken said. "She took it better than I thought she would, and I finally got that weight off my chest."

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