Mind & Spirit

Sharing the Cancer Journey at Healing Pathways

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Rockford’s unique healing center for those who are recovering from or undergoing cancer treatment has a new home, and it’s a positive step toward changing lives. Explore what’s inside the new center.

A well-stocked library at Healing Pathways Cancer Resource Center has a variety of books, CDs, pamphlets and research materials available.

“OK, let’s work our biceps,” instructs strength trainer Nancy Enke. She demonstrates to class members how to thread the red exercise stretch band through the back of their chairs and grasp the ends above their heads with both hands. As they rhythmically pull up and release, Enke reminds them to breathe in and out and to focus on their body cores.

Members of this group, men and women of various ages and abilities, all have one thing in common: Each is either recovering from or undergoing treatment for some form of cancer. They have found each other through Healing Pathways Cancer Resource Center, which offers free support services to cancer patients, survivors and their caregivers in a comfortable, non-clinical environment.

The strength training class meets at the center every Tuesday at 1 p.m. “This is my first session,” says Donna Gillette. “I found out about it at church. After being so sedentary following the first part of my illness, I want to get my stamina back and start getting out more. I come here to be with people who are going through what I’m going through. If someone’s having a bad day, everyone else understands.”

Opened in April 2010, the independent, nonprofit organization celebrated the grand opening of its new facility, at 3921 E. State St., Rockford, on Oct. 17. Prior to the move, services were offered just two days per week, in donated space in the lower level of the Westminster Presbyterian Church on Bell School Road, while administrative duties were conducted five miles away, in office space provided by the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford.

“Here, it all comes together under one roof,” says Ann Blee, Healing Pathways interim executive director. “We’re now open five days, Monday through Friday. We offer diet and nutrition classes, movement such as yoga and qigong, and fitness. All programs are directed to all levels of abilities, and conducted in a gentle manner, in small, intimate groups.”

Healing Pathways provides meeting space, where support groups for patients, survivors and caregivers gather. It brings in a variety of speakers: oncologists and physical therapists, practitioners of various therapies such as guided imagery, and specialists on nutrition, herbs and natural supplements. A medical advisory board comprised of professionals from all three local hospitals approves all activities before they’re offered.

“We focus on three key areas,” Blee explains. “Nutrition and fitness, to help with survival and handling treatment. The mind/body connection, because we all know that state of mind plays a vital role in dealing with illness and treatment. Social and support groups, so that people find a sense of community. You can come here and take your wig off to do yoga. You can’t do that at the Y. And we try to treat visitors normally. We don’t baby them or act over-solicitous.”

The center also offers Reiki, reflexology and massage therapy, all from licensed and accredited practitioners who volunteer their time and skills. Healing Pathways is a valuable networking resource, with information about other support agencies, financial assistance, rehabilitation services and more.

A well-stocked lending library has books, DVDs and CDs on diet, sleep, meditation, homeopathic and natural therapies, first-person accounts and positive thinking; informative pamphlets from organizations like the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the National Cancer Institute; brochures from wig and fashion suppliers; and more.

“Some people have a misconception that we’re like a hospice,” Blee says. “Some of our visitors are in hospice, but this a place of living and positive energy. We help visitors to put their lives back together, to reclaim their sense of normalcy.”

Volunteer Bruce Johnson has seen this process firsthand. Retired for seven years, the former marketing and sales manager meets twice a month with the men’s cancer support group. “I take care of the communications for the group,” Johnson explains. “I keep an active email and phone list, not just of regulars but even one-time visitors. I send out a newsletter-type email twice a month, with meeting reminders and updates. I believe it’s helpful.”

Men’s cancer support groups in the area are scarce, but this one was organized almost immediately following the opening of Healing Pathways, and most of the inquiries about a men’s group came from women. “It’s so unique that we’ve come to be known for it,” Blee says. “People are beginning to associate Healing Pathways with men’s support groups. We actually have more women taking advantage of our services.”

The men meet on the first and third Saturdays of the month, from 9 to 10 a.m., facilitated by Norm Shirk, who’s also a Healing Pathways board member. Johnson’s list has upwards of 50 names, but attendance averages around 17. “It’s amazing how many men come, and continue to come,” Johnson says. “Some get through their cancer treatments quickly and move on. Others come when they can, but the core group is pretty constant.”

It’s an informal discussion format, and topics are varied and many. “We have all ages, from 30s to 80s,” Johnson says. “Younger people just diagnosed tend to focus on what to expect as they begin their journey, but as a group, we talk about everything. It’s men talking to men. There’s no pressure on anyone to speak. New members are always given the chance to talk about their cancer journeys, but it’s fine if someone just wants to listen.”

Older members who remember when they were diagnosed say they never had these types of resources. “The diagnosis hits you like a ton of bricks, and doctors and nurses don’t have hours to spend talking you through it,” says Johnson. “To walk into a gathering like this alone isn’t the easiest thing for a man to do. What keeps it going is what the men receive from the group and from one another.”

Johnson himself has gained a new perspective from the meetings. “Frequently, I thank the men for letting me be there,” he says. “It’s a wonderful experience in humanity, and what people can do for each other in a group, when there’s a synergy. The benefit goes beyond a medical or scientific standpoint.”

Healing Pathways is the only cancer support center of its kind in the Rockford area. It was the brainchild of founder Linda Huffman Jones, a Loves Park native.

Diagnosed with leukemia, Jones had benefitted from a cancer resource center while living in Chicago. When she moved back home and discovered a lack of similar resources in the area, she started a center herself. Along with Carolyn Greenlaw, Karen Moore and a handful of other dedicated volunteers, she began researching and planning in 2007, held focus groups to determine the need in the region, achieved nonprofit status in 2009 and held a ribbon cutting to open the center’s doors on March 23, 2010. Sadly, Jones succumbed to her illness the following month.

Her legacy continues to grow, with support from family members and friends. “My wife and I became good friends with Linda and her husband Dave when they joined our church after moving here from the suburbs,” Johnson says. “We’ve offered our help from the very beginning. Linda was an amazing person.”

Blee never met Jones, but as a cancer survivor, she feels the same strong affinity for the center’s founding mission. “I came to Healing Pathways as a guest just two weeks after it opened,” she says. “Then I began to volunteer, and for the past three years, I’ve served as program director. I learned so much by coming here, and the value of the support I received can’t be measured. I wish I could have known Linda.”

The center pays for the full-time positions of executive director and program director, and just hired two Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) on a part-time basis, who visit area hospitals once a week to spread the word about Healing Pathways. Marketing and accounting duties are paid for on a contract-type basis, but otherwise, all of the services and support for the center are provided by volunteers like Johnson and Enke.

“I lost my brother to cancer 20 years ago, and he was too young – just 45,” Enke says. “I always wanted to do something to honor him, but I never figured out what. I saw the grand opening for Healing Pathways on the news, and I just knew it was my calling. I literally got up from the sofa, turned off the news, drove right over here and signed up to help.”

Eileen Stanley, a member of Enke’s strength training class, learned about Healing Pathways during her own treatment, while attending a support group for those with ovarian cancer. Now, in addition to using the center’s services, she also volunteers, and is a member of its newly formed women’s cancer support group.

“I learned so much here, about exercise, nutrition, coping –and I’ve made friends,” she says. “An important thing I learned is that everybody reacts differently to treatment. Sitting in the doctor’s office, you’re all alone. Here, it’s good just knowing that other people are in your situation and understand what you’re going through. We lean on each other and check up on each other.”

Healing Pathways welcomes anyone affected by cancer, and a caregivers’ support group meets at the same time as the men’s support group. Currently, most guests come to the center from word of mouth, but Blee hopes to increase its visibility.

“It’s grown each year, and by latest count, we’ve helped about 1,800 people in three years,” she says. “The hospitals are well aware of us, financially support us and refer patients here. But people are still trying to find us.”

Says Stanley: “This is a good place. I wish everyone dealing with cancer could come to Healing Pathways.”

Editor’s Note: The new Healing Pathways Cancer Resource Center is located behind Don Carter Lanes in the old Del Marty shopping plaza. Open Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and until 3:30 p.m. on Friday, its services are free to all cancer survivors, patients, family and friends. A list of services, programs and speakers can be found online at healingpathwayscrc.org. Volunteers are always needed, and an application form is available at the center or online. Healing Pathways is funded entirely by private and corporate donors and sporadic grants. Monetary donations can be made online, and a wish list of needed items is available at the center or online.

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