Health & Fitness

Book clubs, cooking classes, yoga — helping cancer patients find their groove

Cancer Yoga Class

Rosaelena Valencia, 64, a breast cancer survivor, participates in Miami CancerInstitutes' Gentle Yoga For Survivors class on Tuesday, May 24, 2017.
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Rosaelena Valencia, 64, a breast cancer survivor, participates in Miami CancerInstitutes' Gentle Yoga For Survivors class on Tuesday, May 24, 2017.

It’s a Wednesday night and about two dozen women have gathered in the conference room at Cleveland Clinic in Weston to discuss the novel, “Big Little Lies.”

Cara Kondaki, a clinical social worker for oncology at Cleveland Clinic Florida, started the book club for breast-cancer patients more than 10 years ago as an alternative to a traditional cancer support group. As newly diagnosed women join the book club, it provides a resource for members to hear from survivors, make new friends, learn about treatments — and read interesting books.

“This group has become like a sisterhood,” said Nancy Collot, a Coral Springs real estate agent. “We are extremely supportive of each other in everything. There is a genuine caring and concern, and that makes a big difference.”

Collot, 60, joined the book club eight years ago while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. She has attended almost every meeting since and has formed lasting friendships with other survivors. “When you are going through treatments, no matter how supportive your family and friends are, they haven’t been through what you are going through.”

Nancy Collot sits beside a quilt made by the breast cancer survivors’ book club at Cleveland Clinic Florida and Girl Scout Troop 95 from Coral Springs. The quilt hangs on a wall at the Maroone Cancer Center at Cleveland Clinic. Courtesy of Cleveland Clinic Florida

At the beginning of the meetings, which are held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in Cleveland Clinic’s Jagelman Conference Center, attendees share their experience with breast cancer and Cleveland Clinic doctors often will discuss the latest treatment options as part of a “medical minute.” And then, the snacking and book discussion begins.

“Yes, we have all had breast cancer, but this is an opportunity to come together with a bunch of non-judgmental people and be normal,” Collot said.

Across South Florida, cancer treatment centers are bringing patients together in a respite from traditional support groups to provide an outlet for bonding and information sharing. While support groups help, cancer center directors and social workers say alternative programs draw the patients who need camaraderie to heal, but may want to avoid traditional options.

“Not everyone likes support groups,” Kondaki said. “We try to offer different things because cancer patients are susceptible to depression and anxiety.”

At the Miami Cancer Institute, Baptist Health South Florida’s $430 million facility that opened in January, a cancer patient book club meets monthly with a bit of a different format from that of the Cleveland Clinic club.

The club meets from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on the second Thursday of the month in the library and reads books that are inspirational, written by cancer survivors or oncologists, said M. Beatriz Currier, M.D., medical director of the cancer support center at Miami Cancer Institute.

“The books are selected by the participants,” she said. For example, the book for May is the best-selling “Love, Medicine and Miracles” by Bernie Siegel, a retired pediatric surgeon who writes about the healing process.

“If they are talking about books, they can launch into discussions that veer into other aspects of life, not just their cancer diagnosis,” Currier said.

In addition to the book club, Miami Cancer Institute offers a monthly cooking club in its teaching kitchen, a gardening class in its meditative gardens and a yoga group.

“All these activities give patients additional dimensions of support and tend to foster friendships that lead to socializing outside the cancer institute,” Currier said.

Patients who attend the cooking classes share healthy recipes and smoothie ideas. Those who attend the yoga classes bond over vinyasa.

5.10.17 MCI Cooking Demo with Chef Hudson 2
Ortanique Chef Cindy Hutson teaches a healthy cooking lesson to patients of the Miami Cancer Institute at Baptist Health South Florida.

At the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in Plantation, Dr. Carmen Calfa, a breast oncologist, has made it her mission to provide more than just medical treatment. The Plantation location, part of University of Miami Health System, opened two years ago and hosts a variety of support programs. “I always wanted to do more for the patients,” Dr. Calfa said.

“Beyond just providing medical care I want to help them with thriving throughout survivorship,” she said.

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Cancer patient Kasia Adelstein smiles after being fitted with a wig by cancer support services expert Tangela Hillery st Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. Courtesy of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center

The traditional support groups for breast cancer patients or caregivers bring in medical experts to discuss the latest research and psychologists to talk about emotional recovery.

However, alternative programs at the Plantation center focus less on the medical and emotional issues in coping with cancer and more on forming friendships throughout survivorship. Options include a quarterly couples retreat, Zumba classes, comedy night, outings to Panthers games, and the soon-to-be-launched beading club.

Calfa said she and Dr. Alejandra Perez, medical director of the Broward Breast Oncology Group, both attend many of the activities and encourage social interaction between patients. In Miami, Sylvester offers a free program from the American Cancer Society that allows patients to bond over beauty lessons and manage the appearance-related side effects of cancer treatment.

“Our patients love getting together and learning from each other,” Calfa said. “It helps them with staying positive and having a positive outlook and leads to better long-term outcomes.”


Below are some offerings at local cancer treatment and support centers

Cleveland Clinic

Breast Cancer Survivor Book Club

Meets second Wednesday of month, every other month

5:30 to 7 p.m.

Jagelman Conference Center

Cleveland Clinic, Weston, Florida

Contact: Cara Kondaki, 954-659-5604

Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, Miami

Look Good, Feel Better Beauty Classes

Second Monday of the month, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

1475 NW 12th Ave.

Miami, FL 33136

Room 1301


Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, Plantation

Biannual Couples Retreat,

June 28, 6-8 pm.

8100 SW 10th St., Plantation

Contact Angela Dill


Miami Cancer Institute, Baptist Health South Florida

Cooking Demos, Super Smoothie Demos

Wednesdays, 2-3 p.m.

Miami Cancer Institute

Demo Kitchen, Third Floor

8900 N. Kendall Dr.

For more information and to register, call


Book Club

Second Thursday of every month, 10-11 a.m.

Miami Cancer Institute,

8900 N. Kendall Dr.

Cancer Patient Support Center, Third Floor

For more information and to register, call


Knitters’ Club

First Monday of every month, 9:30-10:30 a.m.

Miami Cancer Institute,

8900 N. Kendall Dr.

Cancer Patient Support Center, Third Floor

For more information and to register, call


Vinyasa Yoga

Wednesdays, 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.

Miami Cancer Institute,

8900 N. Kendall Dr.

Cancer Patient Support Center, Third Floor

For more information and to register, call