Cancer Services seeks to 'lighten the burden'
By Kim Grizzard
Monday, September 16, 2019
It is estimated that as many as 19 people in eastern North Carolina are diagnosed with cancer every day. But in 2005, when Claudia Sundman learned that her husband had the disease, she didn’t know a single one of them.
She felt isolated living in Oriental, not just because the Pamlico County town was so small, but because the burden of dealing with brain cancer loomed so large.
“We were really new to the area,” Sundman said. “We didn’t have many friends, so my experience as a caregiver was I had no one to talk to. I really needed somebody close that I could have gone to and said, ‘Hey, I’m really struggling. What should I do?’”
When she moved to Greenville after her husband’s death, Sundman determined that she wanted to be part of an organization that could offer to others the support she had struggled to find. Today, she is a founding board member of Cancer Services of Eastern North Carolina.
The independent, nonprofit organization, launched in July 2018, provides support, resources and education for people affected by cancer. Executive Director Lynn Pischke said Cancer Services works to provide the kind of services that medical treatment does not cover.
“When we originally began, the board was just a very thoughtful group of people who recognized that there was more cancer here than in other parts of the country,” Pischke said. “They worried about the social impact, about the families not getting the support that they need.
“Your doctor is not there to treat your emotional side, although I’m sure if they could they would,” she said. “But that’s not their job. Their job is to treat the disease and restore the patient to health. ...There are all these emotionally complicated pieces to this diagnosis that kind of are never addressed.”
Cancer Services seeks to fill in the gaps. Sometimes this means referring families to groups offering emotional support or counseling. Other times, this means helping identify resources in the community that offer financial assistance or help with things like food or utilities.
“About half of the families that are affected by cancer are forced to file for bankruptcy because the cost of treatment and the inability to work and maintain their financial status is just massive,” Pischke said. “Then after treatment ends, they’re left with these huge medical bills.”
Terri Smethers found Cancer Services after she learned in March that she had breast cancer. The diagnosis came two months after her husband had lost his job.
“It came as a complete shock. It doesn’t run in my family,” said Smethers, whose cancer was discovered during a routine mammogram. “We were just really lost and not knowing what to do. … The whole thing was just so overwhelming to me.”
In addition to connecting Smethers with a support group, Cancer Services also gave her information about agencies in the community that could provide short-term assistance until the family could get back on its feet financially.
“There are a lot of resources for families dealing with cancer, but they don’t know about them,” Pischke said. “If we can find a resource that’s already there, we’re going to use it. We don’t want to duplicate services. … Sometimes it’s just connecting family with existing resources. Other times it’s being the resource.”
Such was the case for a stage four cancer patient who was facing the prospect of spending the summer in a mobile home with no air conditioning. Unable to find another agency that could meet the man’s need, Cancer Services paid for a window unit air conditioner and had it installed.
“He was so grateful,” Pischke said. “It was such a small thing to do, but it improved the quality of his life so much.”
Cancer Services also undertakes larger projects, including hosting quarterly breast cancer screenings that provide free exams for dozens of patients who are uninsured. It also partners with other organizations to provide patients with wigs that often are not covered by insurance.
In addition, the organization hosts its own cancer support group, The Club. The group, which meets monthly at Greenville’s McConnell Raab Hope Lodge, allows patients and caregivers to talk, engage in art or other activities and share refreshments. Cancer Services, which does not yet have a facility of its own, also partners with Carolina East to host a support group in New Bern.
“When they all get together and they’re doing something fun together, painting or listening to music or doing some type of a craft, they just organically start sharing their stories,” Pischke said. “It goes beyond just that two hours that we’re together. They make those connections they can lean on after.”
Through Cancer Services, Smethers has found support from a group of breast cancer survivors who get together for dinner to offer advice and encouragement. She also has found that she can lean on Cancer Services.
“When you have cancer, it’s a lonely thing, a lonely place to be,” Smethers said. “(Cancer Services) has helped me in so many ways. I’m so thankful.”
Pischke is thankful for Sundman and others who worked for years to help prepare Cancer Services for launch and for those who support the organization financially today.
“There’s no organization that does what we do,” she said. “We’re trying to take the details and the little things in their (cancer patients’) lives that are making their diagnosis worse and lighten the burden.”
For more information, visit cancerservicesofeasternnc.org or call 561-5351.
Contact Kim Grizzard at email@example.com or call 252-329-9578.