Giving and Receiving
Gilda’s Club Delaware Valley provides a refuge where those coping with cancer can forge bonds and share emotional support
by Bill Donahue

The word “cheerful” isn’t usually associated with cancer, but it springs from the lips of Anne Slowicki, a Bucks County resident and four-year survivor of ovarian cancer, more often than one might expect. Specifically, she uses this word to describe the environment fostered in meetings with her fellow survivors at the headquarters of Gilda’s Club Delaware Valley in Warminster.

“We’re always laughing,” she says. “Even when something sad is going on, which is very often, we might spend our whole time together on something like Charlie Sheen or a dirty joke. … It’s not a downer.”

Following her diagnosis and the resulting nerve damage she struggled with in the aftermath of her surgery and chemotherapy, Slowicki sought out the emotional support she wasn’t receiving from the physicians at the Philadelphia hospital where she received her treatment. At Gilda’s, she discovered the resources she had been yearning for through other people who either were dealing with or had once had to cope with similar ailments.

“Everybody has something to share,” she says of her ovarian-cancer support group, which has an average of six people from one month to the next. “We can discuss different doctors—who’s good and who’s not good—and bring other people in for different programs. The concept seems to be that when there are people like me who become in need, other people are there to help you. As you recover, you do the same for the next group.

“I would say the biggest way it has helped me,” she continues, “is having the opportunity to get information on decisions I may have to make in the future. At the same time, as you’re in there, you always see an opportunity to help someone else.”

The nonprofit organization, which is an affiliate of the Washington, D.C.-based Cancer Support Community, has multiple chapters around the country, providing social and emotional support programs for men, women and children who are living with their own cancer or a loved one’s diagnosis, are cancer survivors or have lost a loved one to cancer. The first chapter opened in 1995 in New York in memory of Gilda Radner, an original “Saturday Night Live” original cast member who lost her battle with ovarian cancer in 1989.

The Delaware Valley chapter opened its signature red door in 2003, and in the time since has helped more than 2,000 cancer survivors and their families. In addition to providing critical information and forging bonds among the people it serves, the nonprofit also provides stress-alleviating classes such as pilates, tai chi and yoga. In addition to its main “clubhouse” and Noogieland building for children on the same campus, the club has three satellite locations at Abington Memorial Hospital, Doylestown Hospital and St. Mary Medical Center.

A common misperception is that Gilda’s is a refuge only for women dealing with ovarian cancer, though the club provides support for anyone afflicted with cancer of any kind; currently it offers specific programs for nearly 50 different types of cancer for people of all ages, from 2 to 92, according to Kelly Harris, CEO of Gilda’s Club Delaware Valley, and a 15-year survivor of leukemia.

“It’s really pretty devastating—a family disease—and what we do is provide free support for three basic things: ongoing support groups, workshops and lectures,” she says. “We might have an oncologist talk about the side effects of chemotherapy, or have something about legal issues or financial issues, or host healthy cooking demonstrations and exercise classes. We also have a series of social events for people living with cancer.

“I’m always surprised when I see young kids come in with cancer,” she continues. “We have a combination of therapeutic and fun activities, speakers that come out, support group time, games, musical stuff. The kids even wrote and put on a play; they even made all their own costumes. … It’s hard enough being a kid, let alone being a kid who has to deal with cancer. We offer a safe haven for them to talk about their fears and whatever they are worried about.”

Gilda’s Club Delaware Valley receives no government funding; rather, it garners financial support through individual donors, fundraising events and some grants, while gracious volunteers—including survivors—offer other forms of assistance. Slowicki, for her part, has earned the backing of several local restaurants and supermarkets, which provide healthy, high-quality food for weekly meetings.

“There was a 2007 Institute of Medicine report that definitively stated that emotional support is as important [to overcoming cancer] as quality medical care,” Harris says, “and subsequent studies have shown that to be true. People who have more support tend to have less depression and tend to do better medically.

“At the end of the day, we see people laughing and having fun, learning something, making friendships,” she continues. “Yeah, it’s a fact of life that people get cancer and die. Back when I first started, there was a woman who came here on two consecutive days, and she later passed away. Afterward her sister came back here and said that when her sister had spent time here, those were two of the best days she had ever had. You see people who are so incredibly sick reaching out to other people who are also sick, looking to make a difference in their lives. … There are people who say to me, ‘How can you do what do you? It must be so depressing.’ No, it’s anything but.”