Other Diseases Linger as AIDS Becomes Charity of Choice : Funding support for groups that help victims of cancer and multiple sclerosis dries up as celebrities speak out for HIV-related programs.

Jane Mayer is a free - lance writer who lives in the San Fernando Valley

I read with dismay that Vital Options, a Valley-based organization for cancer victims between 17 and 40 years old, has shut down most of its seven branches. I fear this is just the first of many charities that will discover the cold winds of fear blowing donations toward AIDS-related causes.

As a cancer patient, I feel a certain (probably selfish) resentment toward the glitzy parties and star-studded galas devoted to AIDS. Certainly, I sympathize with Elizabeth Glaser, a spokesperson often seen seeking support from the public and Congress. She's lost one child, and she and her other child test positive for HIV from a tainted blood transfusion. It's tragic that for so many years we didn't know the dangers of unprotected sex, that AIDS was preventable.

Not preventable was my cancer. If I was exposed to radiation, I didn't know it. I didn't smoke, had asbestos removed from my attic, ate healthful foods and exercised every day. I had no way to guard against the disease that struck with no warning.

How do I feel when I see glamorous stars like Elizabeth Taylor up on a dais pleading for dollars for AIDS? Envious. I understand that movie stars have lost many friends and all the arts have been decimated by the disease, but I can't help wondering which charity will die on the vine while AIDS benefits flourish.

Will it be cancer? One out of every three Americans will contract this disease during his or her lifetime. New cases of cancer outnumber new AIDS cases 25 to 1.

If there were enough money to go around, there would be no problem. But recessionary belt-tightening means some checks won't be written, some wallets will remain closed, some causes will receive less.

What will happen to the young cancer victims who depended on Vital Options for emotional support? Are there other places where they can unburden themselves? If they join another group, how long will it remain open?

Living with cancer is not something that can be left to the patient and the doctor alone. Having a support system makes an immense difference. There is research showing that cancer patients who get this kind of non-medical support live 50% longer than those who do not.

Members of groups like Vital Options rely on peers who can identify with their special problems. At meetings, the most intimate details of one's life are discussed. Take the young woman who's lost a breast. She asks, "What do you say to your date when you've had a mastectomy?" A patient with lymphoma wants to know how to handle the loss of a job. Almost everyone asks, "What's it like to lose your hair?"

Other fund-raisers are troubled by recent changes. In the news story on the closing of Vital Options, its president, Selma Schimmel, recalled that she would be told by celebrities' agents, "I'm sorry, my client is doing an AIDS benefit and AIDS is more urgent than cancer."

Edith Furst, chairwoman of VIMS--Volunteers in Multiple Sclerosis--told me, "We're all working for devastating diseases. Since AIDS and MS are both diseases that involve the immune system, research for one may help the other. But now there's a lot of competition. Our pledge bike ride lost volunteers to the AIDS Walk."

In the four years I have had cancer, I have often used the hot line (800) FOR CANCER, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, to investigate my disease, insular cancer.

It was so rare, the library had no information. I found up-to-date information which helped me make decisions about treatment options.

During and after radiation and chemotherapy, I CARE groups sponsored by the American Cancer Society offered lectures with vital data about skin care, nutrition and exercise. Their programs supplemented information from nurses and physicians and helped me cope with side effects. If I couldn't drive myself to the doctor's office and hospital, transportation was available through the society.

When my disease reached a different phase I turned to another group, the H.O.P.E. Foundation in the San Fernando Valley, which also provides free services: group counseling for patients, their family and friends, art and music therapy and bereavement counseling. I still attend their creative visualization class to deal with stress and pain and always come home energized and relaxed.

Without the free services offered by organizations like these--and Vital Options--many patients won't stand a chance. They'll just give up. Yet none of the services would exist without funding from grants and private donations.

Unfortunately, all charities are competing for the big bucks.

Celebrities wearing red ribbons exert tremendous influence on where our charity dollars go. I just wonder if cancer and some of the less publicized groups will get their fair share.

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