The idea is deceptively simple. When someone is diagnosed with cancer – a diagnosis that often overloads the mind and heart with fear – the best support can often come from someone who’s already been there.
So CanCare, a nonprofit organization formed to provide support for cancer patients and their caregivers, matches volunteers with patients based on their shared experiences: a breast cancer survivor paired with a breast cancer patient, a caregiver for someone who has survived pancreatic cancer with a caregiver of someone still in the thick of providing that care.
Anne Shaw Turnage, a survivor of colon cancer, founded CanCare in 1991 at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston. The program has since expanded to Georgia and Colorado as well. And for Johns Creek Presbyterian Church in suburban Atlanta, which trained its first CanCare volunteers in 2012, the work has been the congregation’s most successful ecumenical ministry and something that’s had a “huge impact” on the congregation, said Neal Kuhlhorst, an associate pastor there and a licensed marriage and family therapist.
The congregation formally moved to adopt CanCare as a mission focus – an outgrowth of a long-term planning effort and a sense that “this is what God wanted us to do,” Kuhlhorst said. Because of the ministry, Kuhlhorst has seen more openness among people in the congregation who have been diagnosed with cancer to telling others they are ill. He’s watched supportive friendships develop, “instead of people sitting in silence when they get the diagnosis.”
The American Cancer Society estimates there will be there will be nearly 1.7 million new cancer diagnoses in 2017, according to CanCare president and chief executive officer Cristina Vetrano. For American men, the lifetime risk is 1 in 2, she said, and for women it is 1 in 3.
Since the program’s beginning 26 years ago, CanCare has partnered with more than 100 congregations, and its trained volunteers have provided long-term, one-on-one support to over 22,000 people, and made more than 138,000 visits to patients in Houston, Atlanta and Colorado Springs area hospitals.
Cancer cuts across all ages, races, genders, income levels – and in the suburbs northeast of Atlanta, CanCare has become a way for Johns Creek Presbyterian to build connections with other congregations, local businesses and health care providers and more than 100 trained volunteers. The volunteers include atheists, agnostics, Jews and Christians, and “we’re looking to get some Buddhists and some Muslims,” Kuhlhorst said.
“Cancer doesn’t discriminate based on what you believe or don’t believe,” he said. “But your belief is important. How you tap into your core beliefs when you’re in a struggle for your life is what’s important to us. That’s part of the hope that gets you though.”
He’s also found that, for cancer survivors, serving as a volunteer can be an important part of their long-term healing. “You want to be able to provide support for somebody because you yourself have been provided support,” he said. “It takes them to a deeper emotional and spiritual healing in their lives.”
Kuhlhorst’s wife, Debbie, is herself a colon cancer survivor – so he knows how hard the disease can be on a family. Debbie now is a CanCare volunteer – and she recently walked into the room after a phone conversation with a patient with whom she had been paired, tears running down her face and telling him, “I just realized the meaning of my cancer,” because now she could “use her experience to provide hope, healing, understanding.”
Kay Royal, now a member of Johns Creek and a CanCare trainer and volunteer, was living in Houston when, at age 36, she was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Her younger son was just five months old. “I walked out of that doctor’s office and said (to God), ‘Please.’ I wanted so bad to be a mom. ‘Please let me live to raise my baby.’ ”
Royal’s treatment included two stem cell transplants, and she survived two recurrences of cancer, at age 41 and 48. She became a CanCare volunteer while still in Houston, and after her family moved to Atlanta, helped convince Johns Creek to start the program there.
“It’s certainly built my faith,” Royal said. “I tell people when they’re very scared and they don’t know what’s going to happen ‘Just know there’s nothing that God can’t do.’ ”
Twice a month, Royal volunteers at the infusion center at Emory Johns Creek Hospital, wearing a badge that says “I’m a cancer survivor.” She talks with patients who are open to it and who seem to need support the most – often those who are newly diagnosed, who’ve been given bad news, who are having a particularly hard day. She tells them she’s been in remission for over a decade, and “I just sit and visit with them. Sometimes we talk about cancer, and sometimes we talk about grandkids or house decorating” – whatever catches their interest and passes the long days.
A half-dozen congregations in the Johns Creek area have become involved with a prayer shawl ministry connected to CanCare – a knitting ministry that Kuhlhorst describes as “a tangible sign of hope.” For example, a women’s group from Johns Creek meets every Monday to make the shawls, praying as they work, and attaching to each beautiful, handmade shawl a prayer card, Royal said.
At the infusion center, if a patient is having a particularly rough day, she stops by before she leaves, wraps a shawl around the person’s shoulders and reads the prayer card aloud to them, telling them they are wrapped in God’s love.
She recalls visiting one patient who was alone in a room, with all the lights turned off. “You can’t help me,” the woman said to Royal. “I’ve got stage 4 cancer.” Royal responded that she’d never had stage 4, but “I had 3B and here I am talking to you.” She gave the woman a prayer shawl, and when she stopped back later the woman was sitting up in bed with the lights turned on.
As much as possible, CanCare matches volunteers and patients who’ve experienced similar types of cancer and who have other things in common, such as stage of life or even shared interests. In Atlanta, a yoga teacher, for example, was matched with a volunteer who practices yoga and is interested in holistic health and meditation.
Those with cancer may feel that by talking confidentially with a volunteer, as opposed to a family member or friend, “they’re free to say whatever they feel,” Royal explained. “They can say, ‘I don’t know if I can keep doing this,’ and the CanCare volunteer gets it. They couldn’t necessarily say that to their spouse or their sister – they don’t want to feel that they’re giving up.”
Providing support for caregivers also is crucial, Royal said, because so often caregivers are reluctant to admit how hard the work is. “My husband was my caregiver when I went through lymphoma,” she said. “We had two young boys at home. He had a job, to keep our insurance. He wanted to be with me in the hospital, but he couldn’t, because he had to juggle the other two. … And you want to keep a smile on your face for your loved one with cancer, because they’re battling for their life. You can only put the smiley face on for so long, and then you need support.”
CanCare currently has programs in Houston, Atlanta and Colorado Springs. Congregations interested in starting a program or getting involved can contact Cristina Vetrano at [email protected] or 713-461-0028.