By Cara Van Dijk

Thanks to a $50,000 grant from the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation, Gilda’s Club Desert Cities has successfully added two new support groups to its extensive list of services that focus on healing the hearts and souls of people affected by cancer. The “Life After Treatment” and “Couples During Cancer” support groups were initially funded by the Auen Foundation. Now with additional funding from the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation, the groups are going strong and changing lives.

Couple Faced with Cancer Find Unique Support

For people familiar with the big, red door and the laughing woman with the large head of black hair, they might know the icon symbolizes a safe place to go and a friend to laugh with while facing the affects, treatment and aftermath of cancer. What might come as a surprise is the magnitude of the impact Gilda’s Club Desert Cities is having on real people faced with circumstances they never expected.

“Gilda’s helped save our marriage!” belts out Dean Mangione.

Dean’s wife, Nancy Mangione, was diagnosed with appendiceal cancer in August 2011. The two longtime desert residents were aware of Gilda’s Club Desert Cities when it opened in Cathedral City in 2000, and found comfort in the support groups offered at the nonprofit agency, separately, at first.

“What happens inside those two red doors is very different,” Dean attempts to explain about his individual experience at Gilda’s Club Desert Cities, which began in the “Caregivers Group.”

“It’s kind-of sacred,” adds Nancy about her participation at Gilda’s Club, which opened its original clubhouse in New York City and is named for actress and comedienne Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer at the age of 42.

Nancy says her life has been in limbo since the diagnosis and after two surgeries, one at Desert Regional Medical Center and the second at MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston. She’s been undergoing CAT scans every four months since December 2011 to check the status of a rare mixed goblet cell carcinoid-adenocarcinoma.

Dean and Nancy both admit their life together became tough after returning from Texas at the end of 2011 without a clear prognosis.

“I experienced isolation for the first time,” says Nancy.

But with their connection to Gilda’s Club, the duo, now married 36 years, found the support they needed in the “Couples During Cancer” group.

“What is taboo in the outside world is safe in the couples group at Gilda’s,” says Dean. “We all comfortably talk about sex, money and death.”

“Robert (a marriage and family therapist at Gilda’s Club Desert Cities) tries to ferret out those taboos, and in most of the sessions people are cracking up,” adds Nancy. “People ask ‘how do you laugh with cancer,’ but if you can’t laugh, I think, what is the point to live.”

Dean and Nancy agree that having a network of people going through similar experiences is priceless, and they value gifts like the recent one from the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation.

“We know the value of this service,” says Dean, who still finds it hard to believe that Gilda’s Club Desert Cities is free and open to all people faced with the challenges after a cancer diagnosis.

“We appreciate the many programs Gilda’s Club Desert Cities offers people affected by cancer,” says Catharine Reed, Senior Program Officer for the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation about the recent gift. “Although each patient, survivor and family member’s story is different, programs at Gilda’s Club connect people and remind them that they do not have to go through this journey alone.”

Supported by “Life After Cancer” Group

Randy Gallagher was told she had triple-negative breast cancer in October 2005. Five months later, she and her husband, Jiggs Gallagher, made a drastic lifestyle change and moved from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles to near isolation in Cathedral City where she and her husband knew no one.

“I became very depressed,” says Gallagher, who had already been through a surgery and chemotherapy in L.A., but was told that it would be at least 8-12 years before doctors could say she was in remission. “Having cancer is like speaking a foreign language even your family doesn’t understand you.”

Eventually, Randy decided to learn more about her new city, and she visited the Cathedral City Chamber of Commerce. There, she found a brochure about Gilda’s Club Desert Cities, and realized it was less than two miles from her house. She thought it was pretty amazing that she had unknowingly moved to a city that had only one of two Gilda’s Club locations in the western United States, so she decided to visit.

“The red doors were immediately inviting,” says Gallagher, who compared it to the hospital settings she had become accustomed to. “When you walk into Gilda’s it’s like a clubhouse. It’s not institutional. My doctors have been wonderful, but I have met my closest friends at Gilda’s.”

Gallagher became a regular at Gilda’s Club Desert Cities. The first support group she joined was called “Living with Cancer.” In 2009, Randy was told she had another cancerous tumor in her breast. This time she had a mastectomy, but feeling like she was starting the process all over again, Randy was happy to already have a support group at Gilda’s.

“You try to live your life, but there’s always something in the back of your mind,” says Gallagher. “I’m now living a cancer lifestyle.”

With such heavy topics as life and death entering the minds of cancer patients, Randy says a support group of peers that encourage humor in conversations is priceless. She now attends the “Life After Treatment” support group, and continues to wait for an “all clear” from her doctor.

Gilda’s Club Desert Cities offers support groups, gentle exercise, nutrition and expressive arts classes, social activities and lectures. Spanish-language support groups are offered in Cathedral City and Thermal. A program for children and teens, “Kid Support,” is available and runs concurrently with evening programs. Because of gifts from donors like the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation, everything is free to cancer patients, their caregivers and family members.

“We know who gives, and we appreciate it,” says Gallagher. “I believe in Gilda’s 100 percent, and I’m glad that the Berger Foundation does too.”
“We are so appreciative of the support from the Auen and Berger Foundations,” says Paula Kennedy, President and CEO of Gilda’s Club Desert Cities. “The original funding for the ‘Couples During Cancer’ and ‘Life After Treatment’ support groups came from the Auen Foundation, and now the gift from the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation will help us move forward as each of these groups continues to grow.”

For more information about Gilda’s Club Desert Cities please call 760-770-5678, or visit www.gildasclubdesertcities.org.