Hollywood resident Lolli McLeroy, diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, remembers walking into a Target store with a scarf to cover her bald head and feeling like she had a spotlight on her.
“Everyone was staring,” said McLeroy, an elementary school teacher. “I went to my car and cried.”
McLeroy told the story to fellow cancer patients at a weekly support group at Gilda’s Club, a support group for cancer patients in Fort Lauderdale. Not only did they understand, they made her laugh.
“You played the cancer card,” one joked after she told how a man allowed her to cut in line in front of him because he felt sorry for her.
“Hearing everyone’s stories was invaluable,” McElroy, who is in her 40s, said of the support group. “I realized, ‘This doesn’t have to be a death sentence.’”
Support groups have sprung up throughout South Florida to provide comfort, hope and friendship to people battling one of the most difficult diseases to face: cancer. Most were started by cancer patients themselves, such as Gilda’s Club, which was started by Gilda Radner, the Saturday Night Live original cast member who died of ovarian cancer at age 42 and felt cancer was something “no one should face alone.”
Twenty-six years after her death in 1989, there are 52 Gilda’s Clubs throughout the United States and Canada. In addition to support groups, they offer yoga and watercolor classes, social nights with pizza and ice cream sundaes, educational classes with cancer and nutrition experts, and outings on boats and at baseball games.
“We want to get people to get their minds off the cancer and do something for themselves,” said Stacey Balkanski, program director of Gilda’s Club Fort Lauderdale. “They also have an opportunity to be social, since, going through this, they don’t have the energy to seek out such activities.”
Gilda’s Club Fort Lauderdale is based out of a luxury waterfront house. The waterfront views, fountains out front, and beautifully decorated rooms painted in soothing pastel colors provide a serene setting much needed for the difficult discussions that take place inside.
The support group for cancer patients is held Wednesday evenings. There’s also a group for children of the patients, meeting in another part of the home. Pizza or pasta is provided for dinner free of charge.
After everyone introduces himself or herself, any topic is up for discussion: “Do I tell my boss about my cancer? Why won’t the doctor give me anything for the pain? What’s the best hospital or doctor for treatment? How do I tell my children?’’
Phone numbers are exchanged after the 11/2-hour meeting, as well as phone numbers of doctors and therapists. With such a strong experience to bond them, friendships are quickly formed.
“I had a ton of questions,” McLeroy said. “I had big questions, like, ‘Do I need to travel across the country for treatment?’ And I had small questions, like ‘Why does my breath smell bad during chemo?’ It’s amazing how getting the small questions answered made such a difference.”
Gilda’s Club Fort Lauderdale works closely with its Miami counterpart, the Cancer Support Community Greater Miami. That organization offers support groups and classes at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, David & Mary Alper Jewish Community Center in Kendall and at Jackson Hospital North.
In a given month, more than 300 people stop by one of the facilities to attend support groups, take a yoga or nutrition class or take part in one or more of 14 different mind-body programs offered weekly. There are also monthly, disease-specific support groups, such as ones for gynecological and breast cancer, and other groups targeting ethnic groups, such as a Haitian support group.
Breast cancer patient Linda Burrowes, then a church administrator, launched Your Bosom Bodies at South Miami Hospital in 1997. She started the support group for breast cancer patients on the advice of her doctor after she was unable to find “an upbeat support group.”
“He said, ‘Why don’t you start your own?’” she said. “So I did.”
Now, the group draws 30 to 90 participants a month, with the philosophy of caring, sharing and education — and a lot of humor. In addition to holding a support group the third Thursday of each month at the hospital, Burrowes invites top medical experts in the breast-cancer field to give lectures. Everyone who comes wears pink, the color of breast cancer, as does Burrowes, who is known as “the pink lady.”
“We allow two pity parties and that’s it,” Burrowes said with a laugh. “We’re not about pity parties. You have to find a silver lining to everything. I’m the Patch Adams of breast cancer.”
Newly diagnosed patients are paired with mentors — people who’ve gone through the same illness and can answer questions and calm fears. “When you're first diagnosed, you're scared and you don’t know where to turn,” Burrowes said.
Recently diagnosed with melanoma, Burrowes now wants to start another support for melanoma patients.
Aventura resident Avi Jewell is a one-man support group at Sylvester’s main center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Jewell, a former wine distributor, had to stop working after his diagnosis of Stage Three esophageal cancer three years ago. But he refused to sit home. Instead, Jewell started his own support group called Tikvah — Hebrew for “hope” — to give back something to the hospital he felt saved his life and offer hope and help to those newly diagnosed.
At first, Sylvester executives were skeptical. They gave him a month to try out his program. Three years later, a host of different oncologists at the center call Jewell to meet with newly diagnosed patients. He has met with hundreds, including the 19-year-old with testicular cancer, the 28-year-old with leukemia and the 89-year-old with lung cancer.
Jewell will meet new patients at Starbucks for a cup of coffee and a dose of hope. The best medicine for them, he feels, is to show them how well he’s doing three years after his diagnosis.
Three days a week, Jewell travels to Sylvester. Wearing his aqua Sylvester T-shirt, he walks through the chemotherapy treatment room as well as the inpatient floor, stopping to talk to anyone who wants to chat.
“I can literally put my arms around a patient and say, ‘I feel your pain,’” said Jewell, who is in remission. “When I tell them I’m a patient myself, they have more confidence in me. A huge factor in their recovery is thinking positively, knowing there is hope.”
Being a survivor himself, Jewell also is able to answer questions that put their minds at ease. One family was concerned because the mother, who was going through chemotherapy, kept forgetting things like her keys. They thought she had Alzheimer’s disease until Jewell explained the chemotherapy could cause something called “chemobrain,” which causes forgetfulness.
Another time, a patient was confused about how she could feel both nauseous and hungry at the same time. Jewell assured them it was normal, something he, too, experienced when going through treatment.
Jewell and his program get high marks from Sylvester these days.
“He’s absolutely fantastic,’’ said Gina Badaracco, patient advocate at the University of Miami. “Unfortunately, sometimes people go to chemotherapy alone. Seeing him makes them feel less alone. He helps patients understand what they’re going through. His experience helps them feel less anxious and full of hope.’’
But Jewell insists he gets more out of the program than his patients.
“I am so grateful to be alive and well enough to do this work,’’ he said.
Cancer support groups
Cancer Support Community Greater Miami, meets Tuesdays 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and from 7-9 p.m., family networking group for children meets the third Saturday of the month, 8609 S. Dixie Hwy., Miami. 305-668-5900 www.cancersupportcommunitymiami.org
Your Bosom Buddies, meets third Thursday of the month, 7-9 p.m., the Victor E. Clarke Education Center at South Miami Hospital. www.yourbosombuddies.org
Your Bosom Buddies II, meets second Thursday of the month, 7-9 p.m., Palms West Hospital, West Palm Beach. www.yourbosombuddies2.org