“Cancer is the scariest word in the English dictionary.”
Nancy Harwick’s statement received an outburst of agreement from those gathered at a meeting of the Cancer Caring Center’s South Hills support group. Harwick, a St. Clair Hospital oncology nurse, is the facilitator for the group, which meets on the second Thursday of each month from 7 to 9 p.m. at St. Clair Hospital.
“When you hear that word, you get so overwhelmed. There are so many things to digest,” says Renee McEwen, a two-year cancer survivor from South Fayette. “And the way my doctor told me my prognosis was by saying ‘You are not going to get out of here alive.’”
“Cancer was my Christmas present in December 1997,” says Ann Norton-McMinn, a breast cancer survivor from Bridgeville. “I was so sick. I was a mess. My sister flew in from California and dragged me [to this support group].”
“When I was first diagnosed, it was all too new to me. The internet wasn’t what it is today, and I was trying to figure out, ‘Where do I go to find out what I’m supposed to do?’” says Dave Yasko, a 14-year survivor of non-Hodgkins lymphoma from Bethel Park. For Yasko, and everyone else gathered there, the South Hills support group held the answers they needed.
The Cancer Caring Center was founded in 1988, and in those early years, its South Hills group was one of the only cancer support groups in the Pittsburgh area. Serving patients, survivors and caregivers dealing with all types of cancer, a handful of grateful survivors are the backbone of the South Hills group today—each of whom is trying to pay it forward by offering understanding and sharing experiences with people who currently are fighting the disease.
Over the course of the meeting, the mood was surprisingly upbeat, with a focus on practical information. The topics shifted from new immunotherapy cancer drugs to health insurance options for cancer care to treating chemo-induced nausea to a contemplative discussion about the opioid epidemic. They also chatted about their beloved pets and McEwen’s ongoing quest to convince her daughter to give her a grandchild, which certainly helped lighten the mood.
“Why would anyone want to go to a meeting and sit and watch people cry? We’re here to talk about good, useful stuff that will hopefully help people,” says Norton-McMinn. “Obviously our group is about cancer, but we talk about anything.”
“New people may not want to talk, but that’s OK. We keep the meeting going,” adds Donna Ratti, the group leader. “We get a lot of speakers in … it’s nice to have speakers because, even if you are a survivor, you always want to learn. Cancer can come back at any time.” Ratti joined the group 30 years ago after a yearlong battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. She says she was the “Queen of Positivity” throughout 30 rounds of radiation, seven rounds of chemo and surgery, but when the doctor told her she was in remission, her repressed fears caught up with her and she realized that she needed to seek help.
“It’s hard to be faced with your mortality … I had a lot of people around me for support. But it’s a lonely walk because you have to do everything yourself. YOU have to do the radiation. YOU have to do the chemo … You hear a lot of, ‘oh you have such a positive attitude.’ But you walk around smiling outside while you are hurting inside,” she says.
The Cancer Caring Center referred Ratti to the support group at St. Clair Hospital, where she found the help she needed. Ratti then left her career as a corporate accountant and went back to school to become a dual-diagnosis therapist working in private practice in the field of addiction. She became the Cancer Caring Center’s support group leader for the South Hills, a volunteer position she has had for nearly 10 years. She works with Harwick and St. Clair Hospital to help coordinate meetings, regularly touches base with the group members and helps lead the group’s discussion sessions.
“The Cancer Caring Center was a wonderful place for me to go when I had cancer. They had therapists and support groups. But they have really grown since that time,” says Ratti.
The center offers a Young Adult Cancer (YAC) support program, in-person or over-the-phone counseling, brain tumor, lymphedema, ovarian and African-American women’s cancer support groups, therapy sessions including pet therapy for children, events for patients and survivors, healthy living classes and a food bank stocked with Ensure and other foods that cancer patients may need. The center also sponsors support groups dedicated to all different types of cancer throughout the Pittsburgh area—four of which are in the South Hills.
“We are insurance-neutral … We want to make sure our services are reaching those who need them, so our community locations are paramount” says Rebecca Whitlinger, executive director of the Cancer Caring Center since 1994. Whitlinger made headlines in the ’90s for posing in one of her old bridesmaid dresses in various scenarios and locations all around the world for charity. She even authored a book, Always a Bridesmaid: 89 Ways to Recycle that Bridesmaid Dress, which was published in 1999 with part of the proceeds going to the Cancer Caring Center.
Last fall, the Cancer Caring Center announced that it is merging with the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation, based out of Venetia. Foundation co-founder Jennifer Kehm is now working at the Cancer Caring Center on development and community outreach. “Together we are stronger and more united. Even with this partnership … our budget is still under a half a million dollars. So we do a ton of work with a very meager budget, and we are proud of what we can accomplish,” says Whitlinger.
“They are so dedicated. They will help anybody with any kind of cancer. That’s the good part,” says Norton-McMinn. “Every bit of money they receive goes toward what they need to help people … It stays here in Pittsburgh and helps us all.”
Each of the people at the South Hills support group had their own stories about how The Cancer Caring Center helped them through their diagnoses. Some even suggested that they would not be here today without the center’s many services. Obviously, a person’s life view changes when they are faced with their mortality, but the overall theme of the meeting was gratitude—for the Cancer Caring Center, for a new chance at life, even for Pittsburgh itself.
“We are very lucky to have the hospitals that we have here,” says Harwick. “We lead the world in donor transplants … we invented the polio vaccine and the heart valve … there are only seven burn units in the United States and we have two of them here in Pittsburgh … now immunotherapy is where everything is headed, and we are working on it here. Our city is only a quarter of a million people, but we are truly blessed to be here in Pittsburgh.”
Cancer Caring Center’s South Hills Support Groups
Register ahead by calling 412-622-1212
Head & Neck Cancer: first Wednesday, 6 to 7:30 p.m., UPMC Cancer Centers, Upper St. Clair
*South Hills General Cancer Support Group: second Thursday, 7 to 9 p.m., St. Clair Hospital
South Hills Breast Cancer: 3rd Tuesday, 7 to 9 p.m., St. Clair Hospital
Metastatic Cancer Support Group (New as of September, 2018): fourth Tuesday, 6:30 to 8 p.m. Mt. Lebanon United Lutheran Church, 975 Washington Road
*The South Hills General Cancer Support Group is the group mentioned in the story above.
If you would like to support the Cancer Caring Center, consider the following options:
1. Make a donation
2. Consider becoming a board member
3. Attend a Cancer Caring Center fundraising event