As deadly as it has been, COVID-19 doesn’t have the historical track record of what has consistently been America’s second leading cause of death: cancer.
Yet the novel coronavirus has certainly made matters more difficult for people struggling with cancer and for their families and caregivers. Aside from the heightened risk they face of being infected from exposure to the virus, many cancer patients now find themselves isolated at home, separated from friends and others they rely on for emotional support during a difficult time.
But the Cancer Connection in Northampton, for years an important resource for those with cancer and for their families, has a message for them: Even though the nonprofit group was forced to close its doors in mid-March, said Executive Director Beverly Herbert, “We are still here.”
By phone and computer, says Herbert, Cancer Connection staff are continuing to reach out to what it calls “participants”: people who use the wide array of free services that the group offers, from exercise and arts programs to stress reduction workshops, as well as people who simply need someone to talk to.
“Dealing with cancer is stressful enough,” Herbert, a cancer survivor herself, said during a recent phone call. “When you add in a pandemic where people have to be sheltering in place and you’re isolated, it gets even tougher … We want people to know we’re committed to keep helping them, to helping them heal.”
Over the past several weeks, Cancer Connection has moved some of its programs online, including a “movement and music” session, which people can access via video conferencing platforms such as Zoom or via conference calls. Perhaps most important, says Sheila Kelley, director of participant services, is what the group calls “befriending” — talks offered by staff members who act as sounding boards for participants who want to discuss whatever is on their minds.
“That’s really the core of what we do,” said Kelley, who’s a befriender herself. “It’s really about having good listening skills, hearing what [participants] are saying and offering the kind of emotional support that people need.”
Befrienders, of course, have typically worked in person, as the organization before the COVID-19 outbreak held regular drop-in hours for participants to come by and talk. Now, says Kelley, she and others involved in the work, who receive special training to do it, are initiating calls to participants and also responding to telephone and email messages left with the center, as staff members are all working from home these days.
“It’s not the same as being there in person,” said Kelley, noting that there’s obviously no way to offer any physical support — a hug or just a clasp of hands — to a participant who’s having a hard time. “But you can still be there for someone over the phone. Just maintaining contact right now is so important.”
Herbert notes that Cancer Connection has also placed much importance on offering services to family members and caregivers of cancer patients, knowing the toll the disease can take on all associated with it. Given the added stress that COVID-19 has introduced, with families largely shut in their homes, it’s more important than ever that her group be available to those caregivers, Herbert said.
The group is also working to put more of its programs online and to make these remote services “available to all those who need it,” said Kelley. “Not everyone has the greatest internet service, so we’re setting up toll free numbers for people to call in” during conference calls.
Support groups — small, independent groups of cancer patients and survivors who use Cancer Connection for regular meetings — have also largely moved online for the time being, noted Kelley.
Like so many other organizations and businesses, Cancer Connection is struggling financially in the pandemic. A primary source of its $1 million budget, its thrift shop (located at 375 South St. in Northampton) had to be closed last month, and Herbert says it’s uncertain when it can reopen — or when people might feel confident enough to go back there.
In response, the group is looking to apply for help via the federal CARES Act, says Herbert, while also reaching out to past donors, alerting people through its electronic newsletters and considering an online fundraising campaign.
Regular local fundraisers for Cancer Connection in the Valley, such as Monte Belmonte’s “Cancer Camp Out” in February on the Hampshire County Courthouse grounds, have been a big help over the years, Herbert added. But COVID-19 has already canceled the physical presentation of another group fundraiser this year: the annual Mother’s Day Half Marathon, held in May. There is a virtual aspect you can sign on for at https://www.facebook.com/WMassMothersDayHalfMarathon/?fref=mentions&__tn__=K-R
Nevertheless, said Herbert, Cancer Connection will continue to reach out to all who need its services: “Nobody has to feel they’re alone at this time.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected] Learn more at cancer-connection.org.