When Samantha Cassidy, age nine, was diagnosed with B-stem lymphoma, her parents, Mike Cassidy and Debra Grant, turned to the Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group, a quiet organization unknown to many Islanders.
AnneMarie Donahue was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988; she became one of the original members of the cancer support group.
Leslie Stark, who has survived several bouts with cancer, now runs weekly gatherings for survivors and family members, as part of the group. “It’s comforting to know someone else is in the same boat,” said Jane Carroll, the group’s president, whose sister in law died of cancer.
What exactly is this group? Simply, it gives temporary and emergency financial help for related health care needs, and emotional help as well. All the money they raise stays on the Vineyard. All information shared remains on Island.
Bob Holt lost his wife to cancer. He’s on the board of the cancer support group, which is loosely run, with no office, no overhead and no administrative expenses. Every penny goes to help families and individuals struggling with cancer.
Cancer touches many Islanders, and many find their way to this low-key group.
On Thursday, May 14, many who have come to know the cancer support group will head to its annual fund-raiser, again at the Mediterranean, now in its new, larger premises (the old Lola’s).
They come because this group fills a critical need.
When Samantha Cassidy’s parents brought her to the doctor two years ago with a swollen lymph node, he said it was possibly nothing, but he recommended they take her to Boston to be sure. The surgeon there caught the cancer very early. But as Mr. Cassidy put it, “regardless of how early, the protocol is the same.” Samantha has undergone two years of chemotherapy and steroids to kill all the cancer cells in her body. She is one brave third-grader.
“They are helpful getting through it,” Mr. Cassidy said about the support group. “They give support and allowed me to be supportive to others.”
Samantha is in the final stages of treatment. Mr. Cassidy also raves about the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Jimmy Fund and noted that Edgartown School has been very accommodating with tutoring. It has been a moving experience.
“It’s a weird paradox,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, but wouldn’t trade the experience either.”
The initial group of women with breast cancer who got together in the 1980s planned to call themselves Bosom Buddies, but didn’t want to exclude men, or other types of cancer, so they went with Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group.
Seven cancer-free years after her original diagnosis and treatment, Ms. Donahue found a tumor in her other breast — but she has been cancer free since it was successfully treated. “It’s just been an amazing group for me,” she said.
“People are not aware how much cancer is on the Island,” she added. “That’s why we’re here. Nothing is more important than helping people on the Island.”
She recognizes that support groups are not for everyone, but feels the shared knowledge, the traded experience and the bond of support is invaluable.
“Any kind of a hard experience brings unexpected positives,” she said. “I made friends I never would have known. Cancer changes your outlook on life.”
Ms. Carroll the president said she is impressed by the owners of the Mediterranean, Doug and Leslie Hewson, who provide the setting for the fund-raising dinner. “I have to give them credit,” she said. “They initiated it. It’s really a lovely evening with hors d’oeuvre, door prizes and gift bags wonderful vendors have donated.”
The group is sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank and Lee Carroll; the Island Club and Farm Neck also contribute.
“We’re all dealing with cancer,” Ms. Carroll said, noting that the group’s former president Judy Olson died in March. “She was a dedicated board member and a lovely person,” Ms. Carroll said.
Two constants in the group are passion and optimism. Leslie Stark runs the Wednesday meetings at the Hebrew Center. “One of the strengths is that caregivers come. Leslie gets it started and it’s free-flowing,” said Ms. Carroll, whose own experience is one step removed through her sister in law Peggy. “She and I were very close. I took her to Mass General for treatment. Peggy taught me so much about cancer . . . What energy I have I want to give to others. I saw what she was going through. If I can help, I’d love to.”
Ms. Carroll said she learned “how to live with cancer, and not die from it. Now I’m the biggest cheerleader. People have to deal with cancer, both financially and emotionally. This group is unparalleled.”
Vice president M.J. Munafo, who lost her brother and father to cancer, said: “It’s a quiet little group. There’s tragedy in the group, yet we feel it’s important to help.”
Mrs. Munafo wants Islanders to know more about the group and to feel comfortable about the program, whether seeking financial assistance or emotional support. “Cancer affects people both emotionally and financially. It’s not that scary to go to the Hebrew Center to get inspiration from the meeting. We all have our own stories to tell,” she said, adding:
“And we’ve given away thousands of dollars, from $200 to $5,000. Anybody who applies is eligible.”
In eight months last year the group distributed over $35,000. Hundreds of people have benefited.
Ms. Munafo noted the financial drain of travel and lodging for Vineyarders. “The reality is, there are needs, and travel is a huge part of the expense,” she said, adding: “The human face of cancer is important.”
Board member Bob Holt praised Ms. Carroll, whom he said makes sure there is a practical element that goes beyond money. “It’s more than handing a check. We do have quite a list of housing in the Boston area, with inexpensive rates for families,” he explained.
And for people who hate to ask for help? “The group is able to gently get them to accept assistance,” he said.
That’s the kind of low-key, caring attitude the group exudes. As Mr. Holt put it, “The bottom line is that it does help people.”
Samantha Cassidy’s father agreed. “I want to put in a plug for anyone battling cancer, or a caregiver, to stop in to the group. It’s been a lifeline for me,” he said simply, adding:
“No one needs to go through it alone.”
The Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group fund-raiser is next Thursday, May 14, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Mediterranean’s new Oak Bluffs location (the former Lola’s). For details, call 508-627-7958. Participants in this Saturday’s MV Goes Pink Walk also can make the MV Cancer Support group the beneficiary of funds they raise.