Fellowship Gives Cancer Patients Sense of Normality

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The interior yellow walls – like all of the décor at The Yellow Brick Place – are intended to elicit a feeling of happiness, says Carol Apinis, president of the Yellow Brick board of directors.

One wall depicts a yellow brick road with the line, “There’s no place like hope,” a play on Dorothy’s last line in “The Wizard of Oz,” “There’s no place like home.”

Yellow Brick Place in Youngstown provides no medical services, instead offering a range of free support programs for cancer patients and their families. Since opening in 2015, it has served hundreds of patients.

Other programs – Joanie’s Sisters at the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center in Youngstown and Livestrong at the Central and Davis Family YMCAs – offer free support services for cancer patients as well.

Every other month at Yellow Brick, a “Look Good Feel Better” program offered by the American Cancer Society is held for women losing their hair and eyebrows that result from chemotherapy. Volunteer beauticians teach patients how to apply makeup and style the new wigs given to the patients.

“The patients learn how to put on their makeup and draw their eyebrows,” says 21-year breast cancer survivor and Yellow Brick administrative assistant Nancy Connors. “I have never seen a woman leave without a smile on her face.”

A bag of high-end beauty products worth $300 is given out as well. “There’s nothing in here that the patient is charged for and we have lots of choices,” Apinis says.

Other Yellow Brick services include one-on-one counseling, massage therapy and group events such as chair and laughter yoga, holistic treatments and guest speakers. “We try to get fun activities as well as informative,” Apinis says. Monthly programs are open to the public but some services such as counseling and massages are for only cancer patients and families.

“There’s a whole segment for cancer patients,” Apinis says, “dealings with what’s going on with their emotions and in their mind and with their finances.”

A research room is open to the public. Bookshelves are filled with biographies of cancer survivors and how-tos on yoga and meditation. A computer station next to the books has helpful websites bookmarked for cancer research.

Everyone knows someone who has or had breast cancer, but unless that person goes through it herself, she doesn’t know what it feels like, Apinis says.

Apinis, like Connors, is a breast cancer survivor, beating it 18 years ago. She was 45 when she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer.

“The more you share your stories, the easier it is for others to share theirs,” Apinis says. “There’s something about putting a voice to your questions and fears that is very therapeutic for us as human beings.”

Similar holistic services are offered at Joanie’s Sisters, a program at the Abdu Center. While the center focuses on treatment for women with ovarian and breast cancer, Joanie’s Sisters offers support services for all women.

Pictured: Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center’s manager Juli Dulay and community health educator, Julie Paine.

“They’re not just connecting over a certain type of cancer, they’re connecting for the emotional support that they need,” says the center’s community health educator, Julie Paine. “Just because one has breast and one has colon, they’re dealing with the same obstacles in their families and with their husbands regarding intimate relationships.”

Joanie’s Sisters meets from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. the third Wednesday of every month at the center. The agendas touch on the many aspects of treating cancer: health education and promotion workshops, meditation and relaxation activities, food preparation and sampling, exercise and weight management classes, and survivor stories of hope.

When weather permits, these activities take place in Joanie Abdu’s Serenity Garden. “It has the wonderful healing environment that we want patients to feel both in the center and outside of our center,” says its manager, Juli Dulay.

About 30 women are in Joanie’s Sisters. While men are welcome to join, “We haven’t had any men in the group yet,” Paine says, “but men do attend in support of their spouses.”

The Livestrong program offered through the YMCA provides fellowship, but the foundation of the program is physical fitness, says the coach, Cathy Hergenrother.

Livestrong is a free 12-week program that meets for 90 minutes twice a week. Each cohort of cancer survivors has eight to 12 people. Meetings rotate between the Central and Davis Family Y’s. “Anyone is a survivor once they are diagnosed with cancer,” Hergenrother says. “They continue to be a survivor.”

Survivors need not be members of the Y to participate and during meetings family members can use the Y facilities.

“The Livestrong program is for any adult cancer survivor regardless of their stage,” says YMCA wellness coordinator Loretta Pflug. “They could be diagnosed two seconds ago or in remission for 10 to 20 years.”

The program works with survivors to help them regain balance, flexibility, endurance and strength. In the first week, a head-to-toe intake is done to determine medical issues, strengths and weaknesses and experience of exercise, Hergenrother says.

Survivors begin with 10 minutes of cardio exercises before engaging in weight training. Every class ends with a prayer. During the program, the survivors attend various classes the Y offers. Over the 12 weeks, survivors build up endurance and by the end, can work through 30-minute sessions.

Pictured: Sept. 20 Livestrong graduates Cyndi Johnson, Betty Fisher, Dorothy Workman, John Deen (behind bag), Toney Altomare, Ron Britt, Sheryl Dragovich, and 12-rounds instructor Clemate Franklin.

“From a human standpoint, we’ve all been at places where we’re not at our best. And when we are finally able to dig out of that hole – whether mental or physical – it feels so good,” Hergenrother says. “To watch that journey for some of these people who have a hard time walking and getting here – and then being able to do 20 minutes on the treadmill – it’s such a boost for them.”

One trainer for Livestrong, Julie Geiss, was diagnosed with breast cancer 4½ years ago. “I’ve always been an athlete. And at the time I was diagnosed, I was a runner. So it threw me a curve ball,” she says.

Throughout Geiss’ treatments, exercise helped her keep high levels of energy. She says she saw the difference it made to her compared with others going through the same treatment. Her cancer now in remission, Geiss wants to share her journey with others in the program.

“I have the perspective that they have, especially women who have been through a double mastectomy,” she says. “I know what the recovery feels like and what it feels like to do exercises. There’s some fear when people begin exercising and I want to be a good example so that they can still do a lot.”

Similarly, Betty Fisher liked to exercise before she had cancer, and learned that exercising during treatment helps reduce fatigue and improve mental health.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2016, Fisher underwent chemotherapy and a surgery, leaving her feeling worn out, she says. She joined Livestrong after seeing a flyer in her doctor’s office.

“I loved it from the start,” Fisher says. “It took about four weeks to get more energy. But about the fifth week I noticed I wasn’t as tired as I was. I feel stronger, I have more energy and feel better.”

Fisher has been in remission since May.

Another Livestrong participant, Dorothy Workman, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. After nine years in remission, doctors again found cancer in 2015. She went through chemo and radiation treatments a second time and is again in remission.

She wasn’t up to doing much afterward, she says, but her sister knew about Livestrong and helped her to sign up.

“I feel myself getting stronger and stronger and being with a group of people is so nice,” Workman says. “When I come here it’s so nice because we’re talking about cancer but not focused on it.”

Pictured at top: Carol Apinis, president of the Yellow Brick board of directors and Nancy Connors, administrative assistant.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.