When Marcie Stewart got the news early last year, she went into shock.
The Manhattan Beach woman--who is highly paid in computer sales and accustomed to success--said she turned into a "basket case. . . . I couldn't even function."
When Dorothy Adland, who owns a secretarial service in Torrance, got the same news a few months earlier, she went through "rage, depression and fear," she said.
Both women had cancer.
Despite the shock, each had known that something was wrong. Stewart, 38 at the time, said she had developed "some neurological problems, twitching in the face," and was seeing double. It turned out she had a brain tumor that probably had been developing for several years.
Adland, 53, had early-stage breast cancer. "Mammograms did not pick it up, but I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that something was wrong," she said. "I had a horrible lump."
Stewart got into chemotherapy, while Adland's doctors decided on surgery followed by radiation. Both said they believe in their doctors and in the treatments they have prescribed.
But neither wanted to leave it all in the doctors' hands. As Adland put it: "When I was diagnosed, I took charge of my own life rather than being a helpless victim."
She and Stewart joined the Wellness Community South Bay Cities, a support program for cancer patients that opened a year ago in Redondo Beach. The program is based on a frequently quoted statement by Harold H. Benjamin, a retired attorney who opened the first Wellness Community in Santa Monica six years ago:
"Cancer patients who participate in their fight for recovery along with their physicians--instead of acting as hopeless, helpless, passive victims of the disease--will improve the quality of their lives and just may enhance the possibility of their recovery."
The Wellness Community is a place where a cancer patient may shed tears in an intense therapy session one day, only to reel with laughter the next day at a joke session where cancer is the butt of the humor.
Wellness leaders are specific in stating that the community is not intended as a substitute for traditional medical care for cancer. "We stress that it is foolish not to have medical treatment," said Marian Mohr, executive director.
What the program does assert, among other things, is that people should regard cancer as a disease, not something shameful to hide; that they should become partners with their doctors; that they should strive to reduce stress, laugh and enjoy life, develop friendships and expect recovery rather than death.
Without ignoring the fact that cancer kills--19 participants in the program have died--the community emphasizes that cancer is not the death sentence many fear. According to the National Cancer Institute, half of the Americans who learn that they have cancer are still alive five years later.
The community's center--at Pier Plaza almost within view of the Redondo Pier--is intended to be homey rather than institutional, with light colors, plants and art on the walls. Many activities take place in a large, hexagonal room where sunshine filtering through tall windows creates a relaxed, cheerful and inviting atmosphere.
Recalling her first visit to Wellness, Stewart said: "When it was my turn in the group, I was sobbing very hard and it was hard for me to talk. I waited until the very end. When we had coffee and cookies afterward, I found immediate warmth. . . I got lots of hugs, all kinds of really neat feelings. I knew it was the place for me."
Part of the Wellness program fits the mold of traditional group therapy. Licensed counselors lead structured sessions--some for cancer patients, others for their families and friends--designed to reduce stress. Stress makes people feel ill, Mohr says.
More than 100 people are currently in the program's various groups. What do they talk about? Almost everything, participants say: the debate over chemotherapy and its horrendous side effects; concern about blood transfusions in the era of AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome; apprehensions about medical tests that might have dire results; complaints about physicians who seem insensitive or speak in "doctorese"; hassles over disability and insurance payments, jobs and relationships.
"You talk to other people who know what the devil it is you're talking about," said Adland, a native of England who hasn't lost her accent after 30 years in the United States. "What it's like to be nauseous from chemo, what it's like to lose your hair, what it's like to be burned from radiation, what it's like to know that death is there."
Stewart added: "We talk about our feelings, mostly, our families, our feelings about death, our goals for the future. We try to focus on the future."
Said her husband, stockbroker Paul Blieden: "You go there to cry, you go there to yell."