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Recovery Loves Company : Fellowship of Those Who Have Grappled With Cancer Nourishes Hope, Dims Fear

December 08, 1988|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

After Teresa Clark of Irvine underwent surgery for ovarian cancer in February, she began feeling as if "the bottom was dropping out of my world."

It wasn't just that Clark, 43, a lawyer and mother of two children, had never really been sick before. She also discovered that many of her friends felt awkward talking with her about her cancer; others avoided her completely. What Clark needed most was someone to talk with, someone who knows what it is like to have cancer.

She found what she needed at a meeting of the Wellness Community.

A friend had suggested that Clark look into the nonprofit program, which operates out of an old yellow house in Santa Monica and offers free psychological and social support to more than 500 cancer patients a week.

"There was just a lot of energy in the room," she said. "There were people who had just discovered they had cancer and wanted to do everything they can to fight it, and there were those who had beat it. It was really nice to meet people who had gone through it and recovered. It took a lot of the fear away, the fear of the unknown."

Since her first visit to the Wellness Community in March, Clark has continued to make the 100-mile round-trip drive every Thursday to participate in a support group. "It keeps you from feeling isolated," she said.

But freeway commutes to Santa Monica for Clark and the 20 other Orange County cancer patients active in the program will soon be a thing of the past. The county's own Wellness Community is expected to open near UC Irvine in the next few months.

The Irvine Co. has pledged $15,000 toward the first year's rent on a temporary facility. Meanwhile, a fund-raising campaign is in full swing, with talks under way to build a permanent, 6,000-square-foot complex on leased land at UC Irvine.

The dream of a Wellness Community to serve the county's estimated 11,000 cancer patients received its biggest boost at an invitation-only party last weekend. Harriett M. Wieder, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors; UCI Chancellor Emeritus Daniel G. Aldrich Jr. and Walter Gerken, past chairman and chief executive officer of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co., introduced the concept to leaders in the business, medical, philanthropic and cultural communities.

Wieder, who has led the effort to establish a Wellness Community here, described the gathering as "the catalyst that will really get things moving."

At the party, held in the Huntington Harbour home of Steve and Marianne Mansfield, Harold Street, president of development for the Koll Co. in Irvine, announced that the company would provide the labor to build a permanent facility. Others, such as Leonard Shane, chairman and chief executive officer of Mercury Savings & Loan, and his wife, Marjorie, pledged financial support.

"We will make a financial contribution, but more important than that, I'm a pretty good fund-raiser," Shane said this week.

"I've offered to help solicit others and become part of the volunteer support group. I think the Wellness Community is very worthwhile and very much needed. We're going to see to it that it happens. I think many businesses and community leaders, once they're aware of this, will be happy to help. All of us who were at the party were terribly impressed with the story."

The Wellness Community was founded in 1982 by Harold Benjamin, a former Beverly Hills lawyer who believes that if cancer patients participate in their fight for recovery along with their physicians--rather than acting as helpless, hopeless and passive victims--they will improve the quality of their lives and may enhance the possibility of recovery.

Since its inception, the free, nonprofit, non-residential program has offered cancer patients weekly 12-member support group sessions with licensed psychotherapists, social activities such as a Sunday brunch Joke Fest and workshops on subjects including nutrition, anger and stress management, pain control, family problems and visualization (a combination of meditation and guided imagery in which participants imagine that their immune system is battling the cancer cells).

But most of all, the Wellness Community offers cancer patients a supportive place where they can go and no longer feel alone. It is, as actress Gilda Radner, one of the Wellness Community's most famous participants, has described it, "just a bunch of comrades in arms united against a common enemy."

That was evident at a recent Sharing Group meeting, an introduction to the Wellness Community attended by Clark and 35 other new and old participants in the living room of the Santa Monica facility.

Like a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, they took turns introducing themselves and describing their stories:

"I'm Faye Fox and I had breast cancer. . . ."

"My name is Judy Levenstein and I've been a participant here for 2 years. . . ."

"My name is Gloria and the name for my cancer is lymphoma. . . ."

Then it was Clark's turn. As she described her cancer and treatment, she echoed a familiar message:

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