A center for cancer survivor support thatcalls itself "the Valley's best-kept secret" is hoping to raise its profile by staging Arizona's first inclusive walk to supportall types of the disease.
The Dec. 5 Cancer Connections Walk and Hope Cafe will be a fundraiser for the Wellness Community, a national nonprofit organization that provides support, education and hope to people with cancer and their loved ones. But program director Jamie Sellar said the walk is mainly an effort to cast a wider safety net for those whose lives have been affected by cancer.
"Anyone who wants to walk to support someone they know, or themselves, or someone who's passed, is more than welcome," Sellar said, adding that more than 200 walkers are expected. The event has already surpassed its $5,000 fundraising goal, according to the Wellness Community's Web site.
The nonprofit's reach has grown dramatically in recent years, from 5,400 visitors in 2006 to about 12,000 so far in 2009. Gilbert resident Marilyn Burke, who has been attending support groups at the center since she was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago, noticed the increase in activity over the last few years.
"Our first meeting we had six people, and now our average meeting is 20 to 22 people," she said of the support group for the carcinoid cancer she survived.
The Wellness Community also offers free educational seminars and classes in nutrition, exercise and stress management to cancer patients. They are funded by corporate, foundation and private donations.
Burke lived through five years of pain before a doctor finally diagnosed her with carcinoid cancer, a slow-growing type of tumor diagnosed in about one in 1,000 Americans annually. It's usually found in the digestive tract.
In Burke's case, the tumor caused a blood clot in the vein that drains blood from the small intestine back into the heart. The cancer had already spread to her liver by the time it was discovered by an emergency room ultrasound.
She was told several times that the tumor was inoperable and she didn't have much time left. But Burke refused to accept that diagnosis and pushed forward in her search for treatments, undergoing months of experimental treatments and surgeries, during which the cancer was found to have spread.
Finally, during a 14-hour surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, the original tumor was peeled off the vein and parts of her pancreas, stomach, intestines and gall bladder were removed.
Despite her ordeal, Burke has been cancer-free since 2006 and looks remarkably youthful for any 67-year-old. But she still must deal with some after-effects. She won't be in the Cancer Connections Walk because of a torn tendon in her ankle, which may be tied to one of the drugs she took while being treated.
Burke said the Wellness Community's support has been invaluable, particularly when dealing with a little-known type of cancer.
"People with these cancers go to seminars and go to conferences and go to support groups. They have to educate themselves," she said.
One of the goals of the walk is to raise awareness for more rare forms of the disease, Sellar said, but overall it is meant to be an inclusive march.
"It encompasses all of the cancers, and it's the first of its kind in Arizona," he said.