AnneMarie Donahue was 33 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1980s. Luckily, she recalls, a friend in Woods Hole had a car, so she was able to drive to Hyannis for treatment on weekdays and continue working on the Island.

Another friend, Cathy Perrigo, had recently responded to a local newspaper ad that said: Got cancer? Call me if you want to talk.

Ms. Perrigo was a pharmacist at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and for many years a small group of women met weekly in the doctor’s library to share their experiences and offer mutual support.

What quickly emerged was an understanding that cancer takes a financial as well as an emotional toll. That was especially true for Islanders who needed to travel to Boston or Hyannis for treatment and find lodging off-Island too.

“Listening to these stories week after week, we just decided we really wanted to do something about that,” Ms. Donahue said in a conversation with the Gazette. “So in 1996 we became incorporated and started raising money to help Island cancer patients.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group now welcomes men and women from across the Island and holds three major fundraisers throughout the year, including the Evening Under the Stars gala every May. It offers emotional and financial support to Island cancer patients and their caregivers. Last year the group gave away about $37,000 to Islanders in need — climbing to around $40,000 this year.

But that is not enough to meet the need, said Myra Stark, another early member of the group, who was diagnosed with breast cancer around the time the group became incorporated, and is now chairman of the board.

“As we become better known, and as the population ages more and more, people turn to us and we just don’t raise enough money through all these events to do as much as we would like to do,” she said.

Mrs. Stark was living in New York city with her husband when she was first diagnosed almost 20 years ago. She recalled working in the mornings and then taking a bus across town for treatment and returning on the subway in the evening. But looking back, she says she was fortunate. “Compare that to what an Islander has to do,” she said of the commute. “Think of trying to get up to Boston.”

Her husband, Leslie Stark, a well-known Island figure who died this year, had also been diagnosed with cancer years ago, and the two became regulars in the support group during their seasonal visits to the Vineyard. Later when they moved here full time, they joined the board and played a key role in growing the organization.

“Right from the very beginning we aimed to make the financial lives of people who had to go off the Island easier,” Mrs. Stark said. “That, I think, is the chief challenge for Island patients.” Among other things, the group offers emergency assistance with rent, utilities and other expenses in the early stages of treatment, when patients’ lives are often most disrupted. It also provides temporary lodging on the mainland and has worked with the Steamship Authority to establish reduced rates for frequent travelers.

Meanwhile, the weekly support groups continue to play a central role in the group’s mission. The Wednesday afternoon meetings are open to anyone affected by cancer. Most members are between the ages of 30 and 70, but many younger patients and their families have attended over the years.

When Maurice Young, age 65, decided to join the group a couple of years ago, he didn’t know what to expect. But by going to the group, he said he learned a great deal about his condition and the treatment options available to him. He opted for radiation therapy, which meant going to Falmouth every weekday for a period of several weeks. A recent stroke had prevented Mr. Young from working, so his resources were stretched thin. The group played a critical role in bridging the financial gap.

“They came through in a big way to help me finance my trips, my lunch and some of my everyday living expenses,” said Mr. Young, who is now in remission. He added that the group had opened his eyes to the generosity at work all around him. “It taught me hugely about the extent to which people on the Island support other people in need,” he said.

The group is funded entirely by donations, and has an all-volunteer board. “In effect we don’t have any expenses,” Mrs. Stark said. “We don’t have any rent, we don’t have any salary. So everything we get in donations goes to Island cancer patients.”

In March, the group distributes daffodils at various locations around the Island, carrying on a former tradition of the American Cancer Society. Formerly known as Daffodil Days, the event has been renamed Daffodil Times under new management, but plays largely the same role. Last year the event raised about $12,000.

“The beauty of it is that every single penny stays right here on the Vineyard to help the people who need it most,” Ms. Donahue said

The Evening Under the Stars gala was started many years ago in partnership with Leslie and Doug Hewson, owners of the former Mediterranean restaurant in Oak Bluffs, whose lives had also been touched by cancer. The event now takes place at Farm Neck Golf Club, as does the group’s annual tennis tournament fundraiser in the summer.

Many board members and others who have contributed over the years have experienced the devastation of cancer, but also the power of friendship and community. Some group members have continued to participate even after entering remission.

“You hear it all the time, there is nothing like talking to somebody else who’s been through what you have,” said Ms. Donahue, who continues to serve on the board after more than 25 years.

“It just feels so good to be able to give back a lot of what I received so many years ago,” she added.

The Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group meets every Wednesday at noon at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. For more information and how to donate, visit or call 508-627-7958 or 508-693-8296.