Fighting back | September 19, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - September 19, 2008

Fighting back

Wellness Community teaches that cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence

by Geoff Gillette

Stacey Hartmann's life changed July 7, 2000. The 39-year-old mother of three went into the hospital for surgery on what was believed to be an ovarian cyst.

"It turned out to be a lot more," she said. "It turned out to be cancer."

Surgery revealed that Hartmann, a Danville resident, suffered from ovarian cancer, and doctors suggested she begin chemotherapy almost immediately. She said the diagnosis shocked her and her family and left her face to face with her own mortality.

"Of course, the first thing anyone thinks when they hear that is, 'It's a death sentence.' That's what anyone thinks when they hear about cancer."

Those feelings changed when a social worker visited her in the hospital armed with resource materials about the disease that had invaded her life and how best to treat it.

Among the pamphlets and brochures was literature about a facility in Walnut Creek called the Wellness Community.

A month and a half later she finally went to see what the Wellness Community had to offer.

"I had been through two courses of chemo and I seemed to be responding so I was feeling good. I went for a 'newcomers meeting' and I went with my Mom," she recalled.

"We were in a meeting with one or two other cancer survivors who described the community and the programs. After that meeting I decided I wanted to attend a weekly support group. I started in August 2000 and have been there every Tuesday morning since."

What she learned is that a cancer diagnosis affects everything. How you live, how you eat, sleep, even how you react to others. If left unchecked, the social and psychological components of the illness can do as much damage as the disease itself.

That's where the Wellness Community comes in. The Walnut Creek facility, one of 26 such centers nationwide, works with cancer patients to teach them survival skills, both physical and psychological.

Susan Wichmann, president of the board of directors for the facility, said the goal of the Wellness Community is to teach people that a diagnosis of cancer is not a death sentence.

"We believe that the Wellness Community is able to provide hope, support and education that is needed in a time of crisis, and the things we offer will help improve the quality of life of someone with cancer."

Wichmann said the idea is for people afflicted with cancer to feel comfortable and to know the people there have an understanding of what they are going through. She added that part of her training was to go to one of the support group sessions.

"I didn't want to do that," she said. "I thought it would be depressing, sad. I procrastinated but finally I went. I think it was the most invigorating two hours I've ever spent. There was no sadness, there were no tears. This was a group of incredibly vitalized women dealing with the reality of their life."

Hartmann said one of the things that helped her in the group sessions was the sense of no boundaries.

"We talk about anything," she said. "Cancer touches every aspect of your life. Sometimes there's sadness and fear and tears. Other times we're laughing. The group each week reflects what is going on in our lives each week."

One of the unique aspects of the Wellness Community is that the group facilitators really don't "lead" the group.

"Basically it's the group members who decide what we're going to talk about each day," Hartmann said, adding, "What the facilitator does is help us identify the emotions we're feeling and deal with them. Help us learn to be 'patient active.'"

Patient Active is part of the core of the philosophy at the Wellness Community. Right in the foyer at the Walnut Creek facility hangs a quote from founder Harold H. Benjamin summing up that credo: "Cancer patients who participate in their fight for recovery, along with their healthcare team, will improve the quality of their lives and may enhance the possibility of their recovery."

That idea, along with the support of her group, helped Hartmann keep hope alive when, in 2002, she received an additional diagnosis of breast cancer. Having the resources of the Wellness Community kept her fighting.

In the second case, the cancer was caught early. Hartmann said that a lumpectomy showed the cancer to be treatable with chemotherapy.

"Over the last eight years I've had three major abdominal surgeries and over 100 chemotherapy treatments," she said.

The support and assistance of the group have allowed her to continue on with her life, instead of allowing her disease to take over. She continues to work part time for the Town of Danville and has even taken an active role in helping to find a cure.

"I stage a comedy benefit show at the Lesher in Walnut Creek," she explained. Hartmann and co-producer Charleen Early put on a comedy show each year with the proceeds going to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition.

Susan Wichmann said stories like Stacey Hartmann's are a large part of why the Wellness Community is there and the effect it has.

"People need to know that it is survivable. While cancer scares us - even the mention of the word - many people not only survive cancer but thrive and learn to live with cancer as a chronic disease."

Erika Maslan is one of the Wellness Community's facilitators. A licensed therapist, she has devoted a great deal of time to the psycho-social aspects of disease management and she said that what the Wellness Community does is key for patient survival.

"The most important part of our name is 'community.' Part of community is getting rid of that aloneness that so many people feel." She added, "When a person is diagnosed, friends withdraw, family relations can become strained. People don't know what to say. That changes the moment they walk into group. They no longer feel alone."

Maslan said groups are generally made up of eight to 10 people. There are general groups with varying diagnoses and stages of disease and there are also support groups specifically for one type of cancer. What they all have in common is that they provide a means for cancer patients to reach out to one another.

"The people who come here are survivors, looking for other survivors to connect with and find ways of dealing with the disease," she explained.

Groups are part of what the Wellness Community offers but not everything. Program Director Margaret Stauffer welcomes everyone to check its calendar at Cancer 101 includes understanding your diagnosis and navigating the health care system. African Drumming is offered because drumming has been shown to boost the immune system functions and metabolism for cancer patients.

"There is always something going on here," Maslan said. "This is a busy, busy place."

The Wellness Community serves around 450 people each month and offers 50 different groups or classes each week. Groups are held for those trying to cope with a loved one's illness, even programs for children with a parent who has been diagnosed.

"It's a place not just for the person with cancer, but the support people, the family and caregivers," Stauffer said.

The Wellness Community does not charge for services; it subsists on individual contributions, corporate donations and special events. It has about three full time staff, and its annual budget is around $1 million per year.

Each year the group holds a gala fundraiser, to help meet those financial needs. Volunteer Lori Wilcoxson is one of those who has stepped up for the past three years and offered to help organize the annual event, which takes place tomorrow at Diablo Country Club.

For Wilcoxson, helping the Wellness Community has a personal side to it.

"When I was 14 my Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and she died when I was 17. If there had been this kind of support in the late '60s and early '70s the whole experience would have been different."

Susan Wichmann said that is the thing about the Wellness Community - the commonality of purpose.

"I don't know a family that hasn't been touched by cancer. That's why we want to help, so others don't face the same struggles." She added, "We haven't won all the battles with cancer, but we're going to."


Like this comment
Posted by Stacey Hartmann
a resident of Danville
on Sep 21, 2008 at 5:28 pm

Thanks, Geoff and Danville Weekly, for a nice story about the Wellness Community that highlighted my experiences as a cancer survivor and Wellness participant. I would like to clarify the information in the story about my breast cancer diagnosis. My breast cancer was NOT metastatic. It was a stage I, successfully treated with lumpectomy, radiation and chemo.

Also, thanks to the many people who came out to Diablo Country Club 9/20 for the annual gala to support the Wellness Community.

Finally, congratulations, Wellness Community staff and volunteers, on another successful event!