By Laura McAlister
Cheryl Bourn has been cancer free for more than five years, but she’s still an active member of the CanSurvive cancer support group.
For her, the group is not just about coping with cancer. It’s also about education and awareness.
Cheryl is the president of CanSurvive, a nonprofit organization that supports women with gynecologic cancers and their family members and caregivers.
The support group was formed in 1998 by a group of medical professionals at the UAB Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology’s Division of Gynecologic Oncology.
The group meets twice a month to offer support and information to those with gynecologic cancers. Members also distribute information to the public on gynecologic, or “gyn,” cancers, the most common of which are endometrial/uterine, ovarian and cervical.
“For me, I think it’s good for the women going through treatments right now to see people like me, who are survivors,” Cheryl said. “As a former teacher, I also can stand and talk a while about the symptoms and getting checked.”
When it comes to gyn cancers, most women are ill-informed about the symptoms, as well as how the cancers are detected, Cheryl said.
Alice Laurendine, an ovarian cancer survivor, said that’s one reason she’s active with the group.
Alice has been cancer free for two and a half years. Even though she had some of the symptoms associated with ovarian cancer, she never believed that’s actually what she had.
“I didn’t have ovaries,” she said. “I had a complete hysterectomy 23 years earlier. I didn’t know you could have ovarian cancer if you didn’t have ovaries, but it turns out you can. The cancer is named for where it’s found, and mine was found where my ovaries used to be.”
Members of CanSurvive often travel to area health fairs distributing literature on gyn cancers as well as sharing stories like Alice’s.
They hope to raise awareness of the symptoms and make women aware that many gyn cancers, especially ovarian, are not likely to be detected by annual exams like pap smears.
CanSurvive also works with other organizations, such as the Laura Crandall Brown Ovarian Cancer Foundation, to spread awareness.
Cheryl said members range in age from 32 to 82. Their monthly Friday lunch meetings draw about 35, and the Sunday afternoon meetings draw about 15.
In addition to educating the general public, Cheryl said, the group also strives to educate members at its monthly meetings by having health care professionals, insurance providers and family planners speak.
“We’ve had people come and talk about legal issues and Social Security and disability,” she said. “We also do fun things like Christmas parties.
“Most of all, though, we want to help people get over the initial shock, that there’s somebody who can relate to them.”
Jo Ann Baker, who has been on and off chemotherapy to treat ovarian cancer for about four years, said that’s what’s been most useful to her.
When she first started chemo, she never expected to feel so out of it. But Cheryl was quick to tell her that’s expected.
“The concoction of drugs they give you can make you feel like you’ve been on a two-day drunk,” she joked. “But really, that’s what keeps you from throwing up your toenails. It really keeps you from getting sick.”
To Maila Mathry, members like Connie LaMonte, the vice president of the group, have been a great inspiration. Maila was diagnosed with endometrial cancer two and half years ago and “has been battling it ever since,” she said.
“I just like talking to Connie,” she said. “She’s got that fire in her eyes and isn’t giving up.”
For those less fortunate and too ill to attend meetings, the group offers support in other ways.
Each year, through the help of social workers, CanSurvive distributes Wal-Mart gift cards or other items to patients struggling with high medical bills. In November, members will put together care bags for chemo patients at local hospitals. In addition to hand sanitizer, lip balm and soft toothbrushes, the bags also contain handwritten notes of encouragement from members.
Membership to CanSurvive is free. The group is a non-profit 501 (c)(3) and is fully funded through donations and grants.
The Friday meetings are held the third Friday of each month at noon at the American Cancer Society on Ireland Way. Lunch is provided by CanSurvive. The Sunday meetings are the first Sunday of each month at 2 p.m. at the Brookwood Wellness Center at Gold’s Gym in Vestavia Hills. Refreshments are served. Dates are subject to change.
Visit www.cansurvivesupportgroup.org for more information.