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Stricken, They're Striking Back at Cancer : Volunteering Offers a New Lease on Life Amid Hopes for a Cure

June 09, 1986|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Ann McWhinney got involved because cancer killed 14 of her friends.

Grace Malloy got involved because cancer killed her 17-year-old daughter.

Michael I. Gonzalez got involved because cancer killed his mother and granddaughter.

Norma Shiner got involved because she had cancer. She overcame "a second episode" in 1982.

All spend much of their free time working as volunteers for the American Cancer Society. Some have worked for years--McWhinney for more than two decades--and have never gotten a dime.

Why do they do it?

Each admits that at times volunteerism is vexing. It can be tiring to the point of bleariness, and with a foe as forceful as cancer, knocking on doors and being rejected carries with it masochistic overtones. It can be maddeningly frustrating.

Some might even label it morbid. Doesn't the closeness to a dread disease--albeit as a foe--somehow draw it closer, make it more real, more formidable, more dangerous?

"No," said Malloy, with surprising force. "If anything, it takes my mind off my own problems. Makes me less self-centered. Volunteering--commitment--is the healthiest darn thing in the world.

"I don't have much sympathy with people who tell me they're lonely. There's all kinds of things to do to get over loneliness. For instance, you can give of yourself. People spend too much time thinking about themselves anyway. What a problem that is these days!"

Gonzalez, 70, has lost not only relatives but also friends. Each time cancer was the killer. And each time death visited, he grieved almost endlessly but welcomed as well a curious feeling of rebirth and renewal.

"It renewed my dedication to fighting this thing," he said.

Malloy, 60, has found her commitment to cancer research--to raising funds--to be a bellwether for other causes. She has worked for crusades against child abuse and in some ways finds that a more troubling problem than cancer.

She believes that someday soon a cure for cancer will emerge but she worries that a cure for child abuse is farther off.

"Why anyone would abuse a child . . . " she said. "It's beyond me. And I worry that we're just now developing an awareness, a consciousness of it. I feel more optimistic about cancer research, strangely so you might say."

Gonzalez has seen plenty of grief and death up close, not only in his own tight circle, but in others--people he's come to know by taking commitment to the streets.

He worries about the "bloated" misconceptions of the "dread" disease. He believes that in many ways cancer is treatable, endurable, but he worries that too many victims think hastily of doom as soon as a diagnosis is handed down. He, like other volunteers, is taught the "message of prevention"--that through diet and exercise, and ceaseless determination, cancer can be beaten.

"I've learned that, obviously, it affects a great many people," he said. "I've also learned that it can have a devastating effect on families. But Alzheimer's (disease) is probably more devastating. You can just watch someone wither away. You learn a lot about compassion, though, watching the courage folks have just fighting these things."

Norma Shiner, 64, puts together an annual antique car show--a proven fund-raising measure. Her own battle with cancer has "drastically" changed her eating habits, to the point where high fiber and fruit play the role that sugar and hamburgers once did.

"My doctor got me involved," she said. "I didn't know it, but at the time (1979, her first episode), I was carrying around a time bomb. I wasn't expected to live, but did , I think, due largely to the efforts of hundreds of volunteers before me.

"Because of my own cancer, I felt a huge need to give something back in return. Through all of this, I've been so occupied, so busy, so curious--I've never had time to think about me. My own problems, that is. That may sound trite, but it's true. I find that reaching-out process an absolute necessity in life--one I had to learn the hard way.

"My husband and I used to own our own business. It has since been sold. I felt much of our time was spent thinking about money--money, money, money. Through my cancer, my volunteer work and ultimately the sale of the company, I learned that money is a shallow, fragile item. By giving up that yen for materialism, I've been richly rewarded, in ways I never expected."

McWhinney first volunteered during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Even her full-time job--with St. Paul's Health Care Center, a home for the elderly--is one of service and dedication.

"I started out as a crusader," she said, "going door to door in La Jolla. That was 1964, this is 1986, so I've been doing it 22 years. The idea is to raise money, to give a message of education--cancer can be prevented. Each year brings a different criteria. This year's message: nutrition. Last year's: colon-rectal cancer. Whatever the theme is, we go after it. I find it satisfying--very fulfilling.

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