For many cancer patients, treatment often looks like radiation, surgery or chemotherapy. But what many people can’t see are the internal battles they’re fighting — anxiety, depression and loneliness.
The Cancer Support Community Greater Miami understands this, bolstering cancer survivors to manage the emotional half of the battle.
“Most people live past a cancer diagnosis,” said Peggy Rios, the nonprofit’s program director. “And we want them to live well.”
Rios is one of the mental health professionals who works with the program’s participants, about 450 people who can choose from support groups, educational workshops and wellness classes such as Zumba, nutrition and stress reduction courses. The programs, which are offered in English, Spanish and Creole, are free to those with a cancer diagnosis; the group also offers services for children.
“Because we take community very seriously, one of things that we do is that we make every effort to address the diverse community that we’re in,” Rios said.
So far, the nonprofit has served more than 27,000 cancer patients in South Florida since its Miami opening in 2002.
The journey to helping others began with a solemn promise to one, said Pamela Katz, founder and president of the group’s Miami chapter.
When Katz was 8 years old, she befriended two other girls at Camp Maplehurst in Michigan: Judy Gluklick and Gilda Radner, then 9, who would go on to become one of the early stars on “Saturday Light Live.” (Among her more famous characters: the clueless consumer affairs reporter Roseanne Roseannada; Baba Wawa, a spoof of TV journalist Barbara Walters; and Emily Litella, the hearing-challenged, elderly woman who would give misguided editorials on the show’s “Weekend Update” segment.)
It was 1955 and the girls remained friends through grade school, college and beyond.
In 1986, the friends learned Radner had ovarian cancer. Katz said she remembers how depression overtook Radner, who couldn’t get out of bed, leave her home or even answer the phone.
“She just sort of got into bed and pulled the covers over her head,” Katz said.
But then Radner, who was married to actor Gene Wilder, found solace at The Wellness Center, which would later be renamed the Cancer Support Community.
“It was like night and day,” Katz said. “She learned how to live each day as fully as is possible and not to worry about a future she had no control over.”
In the late 1980s, when Katz was working in Boston as a psychotherapist, Radner made Katz promise to start a Wellness Community in Boston. Radner died of ovarian cancer on May 20, 1989; she was 42.
Katz kept her promise and looked into starting a center. She met with the Wellness Community founder, Harold Benjamin, and raised enough money to cover the first year’s operating budget. In 1993, The Wellness Community — Greater Boston opened its doors. Katz is confident her friend would have been proud.
“I think she’d be ecstatic,” she said.
Katz continued her commitment to The Wellness Community, where she met her future husband, Dr. Richard Zakheim, who founded the pediatric cardiology department at Miami Children’s Hospital. She moved to Miami to marry him.
By the late ’90s, Zakheim was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After he survived the cancer, he and Katz created The Wellness Community — Greater Miami in 2002, which was later renamed the Cancer Support Community Greater Miami.
There, Katz met Joseph Roisman, one of the people who said he wouldn’t leave his bed when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer 12 years ago.
“I thought the world was coming to an end,” he said. “Because every time you heard the c-word you think you’re going to die.”
He started attending group sessions, which he said were like walking into a friend’s apartment.
Today, Roisman is in remission and is an executive vice president for Perry Ellis International and chairs the Cancer Support Community Greater Miami board.
“Some people say to wait and retire, get sick or drop dead,” he said. “I told my wife that I’m going to enjoy every minute of every day.”
You can reach the Cancer Support Community Greater Miami by calling 305-668-5900, ext. 222, or going to www.cancersupportcommunitymiami.org.