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An Ex-Cancer Patient's New Chapter on Life

April 19, 1990|SIOK-HIAN TAY KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PASADENA — Paul Taylor still winces when he remembers the chemotherapy.

"I was lying in bed so sick, and I wondered, 'Is it really worth it? Is life worth living?' " he said.

That was five years ago. Today, Taylor, 76, says he has no symptoms of the prostate cancer that doctors had believed would kill him within a year. His silver Buick sports a license plate reading "NOO LIFE." ("NEW LIFE" had already been taken, he said.)

He said the doctors didn't know how hard he would fight.

Now the retired businessman has turned his energies to establishing a Pasadena chapter of the private, nonprofit Wellness Community, a Santa Monica-based social support organization that stresses positive thinking and active patient involvement in battling cancer and the despair it often triggers.

"All the doctors told me there was not much hope," said Taylor, who lives in Pasadena. "But there's always hope. That's the heartbeat of the whole program."

The Pasadena branch, incorporated in January, 1989, as The Wellness Community-Foothills, this month reached the $200,000 minimum it needs to open. Taylor, the branch's chairman, raised much of the money through his contacts in the local business community.

Executive Director Anne Kennedy said the facility, now occupying a cottage on North Madison Avenue, will open sometime this summer. There already is a waiting list of more than 100 people eager to participate, and more calls come in every day, she said.

Kennedy, one of three full-time employees, said three or four psychotherapists will be hired to guide weekly support sessions for groups of 10 to 15. The program is free and open to cancer patients and their families, and the center will try to accommodate everybody who signs up, she said. Kennedy and the program director will be trained at the Santa Monica center, which provides social and educational services for 500 clients a week.

One of the best-known participants in the Santa Monica program was comedienne Gilda Radner, who died in May, 1989, of ovarian cancer at the age of 42.

The local branch of the American Cancer Society formally endorsed the Pasadena Wellness chapter last month and will refer clients there, said Richard French, executive director of the society's San Gabriel/Pomona Valleys unit. French, whose agency serves about 3,000 cancer patients, said support programs are in demand because statistics show that one in four people develop some form of cancer.

"There's always a huge need," he said. "They will be partners."

He said the need has grown more acute because of population growth and government cutbacks in health-care funding. "It's like a black hole that's getting bigger and bigger," French said.

Deborah Bolton, president of The Wellness Community-Foothills and a clinical nurse specializing in oncology at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, said she has referred patients to the Santa Monica center--sometimes as many as 10 a month--since it opened in 1982.

Wellness officials stress that their program is no substitute for medical treatment, but they believe that a positive attitude can improve patients' chances for recovery.

Some of those waiting for the Pasadena chapter to open have been attending sessions in Santa Monica for years.

Heather Hunter, 37, of South Pasadena, was 27 when her condition was diagnosed as skin cancer. "I was crying most of the time," she said.

But the friendliness and caring of her group in Santa Monica helped change her outlook, she said. "We talk about dealing with quality of life rather than length. We think of doing something today rather than dwell on how much we're going to miss out on," said Hunter, who is undergoing immunotherapy to control the spread of the cancer.

Jan Krall, 45, of La Canada Flintridge was so panicked when she learned she had advanced breast cancer two years ago that she had trouble eating even when she wasn't undergoing chemotherapy. "I was sure I was going to die right away," she said.

Krall said, "Everybody understood where I was coming from; they knew my fears, my sadness, my anger. You can laugh about being bald there, about getting nauseated and throwing up because of chemotherapy."

At the center, she learned a technique called guided imagery to relax herself before chemotherapy sessions.

"Often I see cancer as a big red ball on fire, and I'd see the drugs as water putting out the fire," said Krall, who is undergoing hormone therapy in hopes of controlling the cancer, which has spread to her liver.

Wellness clients also participate in social events such as jokefests and potlucks, and are offered lectures on biofeedback and exercise. The program encourages participants to study their illnesses in order to make informed decisions about treatment. Individual counseling is available as needed.

Taylor said he is convinced he aided his recovery by learning about his condition and battling the depression that came with it.

"Doctors tell me I'm in remission, but I say I'm cured," he said, grinning. "I don't believe a doctor can tell you how long you have to live. Only God can."

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