Cancer survivors support their neighbors on Martha’s Vineyard

Well-lit, beautifully decorated, and even a bit homey, the Granary Gallery made the evening feel like a family affair. Sitting around the table are (from lower left) Myra Stark, Margie Meltzer, Leslie Stark, Roger and Elaine Bart, Johanna Kobran and Varian Cassat. At rear, from left, are Sarah Soushek, Barbara Ronchetti, Frazier and Katharine Colon, June Miller, and Paul Munafo. — Photo by Susan Safford

Cancer casts a cold, frightening shadow across the lives of too many of us, our friends and family members. In a loving counterpoint, well over 100 Islanders turned out at the Granary Gallery on Thursday, May 19, for An Evening Under the Stars, the 25th anniversary celebration and benefit for the Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group (MVCSG).

An hour into the friendly, upbeat evening, board president Myra Stark welcomed those assembled and thanked them for their support of an organization that donates all the money it raises directly to our neighbors who need it most. “Every penny stays on the Island and goes to cancer patients and their families in need,” she said. “We have no overhead.”

Since its inception, the MVCSG has raised more than $400,000. Last year, $39,000 was distributed to local patients.

Ms. Stark then recognized the people who make the group go, board members Pat Adler, Ellie Beth, M.J. Bruder-Munafo, Jane Carroll, Mike Cassidy, Katharine Colon, Annemarie Donahue, John Durfee, Bob Holt, and Mike Taus.

Ms. Stark pointed out that compulsory insurance in Massachusetts has changed the emphasis of support from MVCSG. While in the past the group sometimes helped out with medical costs, now they can focus their support on defraying living expenses, which can overwhelm patients whose sickness causes them to miss work. “Things like rent, keeping electricity on, paying bills,” she said.

Then Ms. Stark turned the microphone over to Marjorie Meltzer, past president of the group, who described her illness and subsequent relationship with the MVCSG. “Almost 20 years ago, I was admitted to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and diagnosed with three kinds of cancer at once. Within weeks I had two major surgeries. I was traumatized and frightened and, once I healed from the surgeries, I began chemotherapy. It took me about a year to begin to trust that I was okay, and I owe most of that healing to the Cancer Support Group. I found caring people who would listen to my struggles, and I also found I could help others who were on a similar path. That was the gift of the diagnosis…not only was I able to appreciate my life in ways I hadn’t before, I was able to give back what I received from sitting at the support group table.

“What a joy it is to be able to help people in need in tangible ways that are important and meaningful to them. I am so proud that in 1996 we formally established a nonprofit [MVCSG] with a mission that respects individuals and their wants and needs. The assistance allows patients and their family to live their lives in a way that supports the healing process. What they are really receiving is a giant community hug, a true expression of love.”

Annemarie Donahue, co-chairman with Ms. Carroll of the event, also described the support she received after treatment for breast cancer in 1989. At first, just a few women got together over coffee at each other’s houses to share their experiences. In time the meetings became more organized and they thought they ought to have a name. They considered Bosom Buddies and a few others, but eventually settled on the Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group after deciding to include all cancer survivors. Currently, the group meets every Wednesday at 12 noon at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. Patients, family members, survivors, and caregivers are welcome.

“I’ve been through breast cancer three times,” Ms. Donahue said, concluding her remarks. “And the MVCSG has always been there for me. I’m healthy today and very grateful to be with all of you tonight.”

As committed as she is persuasive, Ms. Carroll then recognized some of the key contributors to the continuing success of the benefit: Doug and Leslie Hewson, who hosted the Gala at Mediterranean restaurant for seven years; Lee Carroll, who backed the first Gala; and Chris and Sheila Morse, owners of the Granary Gallery, and the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank.

The ambiance in the gallery fit the mood of the crowd well — warm, supportive, and lively, thanks to the great lighting and the colorful, exciting art on display. Non-alcoholic beverages — from Jim’s Package Store, Our Market, Al’s Package Store, Vineyard Bottled Water, Reliable Market and poured freely — were supported by delicious hors d’oeuvres by Chefworks Catering and sweet treats prepared by Cakes by Liz, Espresso Love, and Leslie Hewson.

Mike Benjamin added to the mood with his voice and guitar, covering an appealing collection of hit tunes from the last few decades.

The Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group meets every Wednesday at 12 noon in the M.V. Hebrew Center on Center Street in Vineyard Haven. For more information, call 508-627-7958.