A little sunshine on those cloudy days

M.V. Cancer Support Group helps patients and families get through it.

In 1986, Kate Healy of Vineyard Haven was diagnosed with breast cancer and she realized that she needed someone she could talk with — in addition to her doctors and family — to share insights and feelings about the journey she was about to embark on.

She ran an ad in the paper that played off a popular advertising campaign at the time, run by the nation’s dairy farmers. Healy’s ad said, “Got Cancer? So do I. Do you want to talk?” She then added her phone number.

Cathy Perrigo, a pharmacist at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital who had also been diagnosed with breast cancer, was feeling a sense of isolation as well, and took Healy up on her offer. The two began meeting in each other’s homes.

Perrigo reached out to Annemarie Donahue of Edgartown, who also had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and over the next several months, a total of six women on the Island, all with breast cancer, would get together weekly and share stories. They toyed with calling themselves “the Bosom Buddies,” but soon men began joining their ranks, and they opted for the more inclusive Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group.

And because Perrigo was affiliated with the hospital, they were able to use the doctors’ library room at the hospital every Wednesday evening to get together to share stories.

“Both Kate and Cathy lost their battle with cancer,” Donahue said, “but we can thank them for creating the Martha’s Vineyard support group.”

One thing that became apparent soon after the group began meeting was that not only were people suffering physically from cancer, they were suffering financially as well.

“When someone is diagnosed with cancer,” Donahue said, “the bills keep adding up, so we soon realized we had to do something to help cancer patients out financially. So in 1996 we sought not-for-profit status, became incorporated, and started raising money specifically for year-round Islander cancer patients to provide emergency assistance to help people cover many of the things insurance routinely doesn’t cover, like co-pays, transportation, hotels, and mileage.”

“Cancer can strike people at any age,” Myra Stark, co-founder of MVCSG, said, “and often the patient is unable to work or must work part-time. That’s why it’s imperative that we provide financial aid.”

“Cancer is financially toxic,” said Barbara Rush, MVCSG board member and oncology nurse practitioner at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, “I don’t care how much money you’ve started with, the minute you get a cancer diagnosis, it’s going to adversely affect your financial well-being. Even if you have good health insurance, the bills can be overwhelming. It’s unusual for cancer support groups to provide financial aid, but having MVCSG do it is a fantastic thing.”

I can speak personally to that point. I was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma two years ago, and the drug I was being treated with was costing around $125,000 a year. While Medicare picked up much of that bill, it didn’t cover it all. The MVCSG emergency assistance fund made it possible for me to continue on with my medication.

Unlike some nonprofits, the MVCSG has virtually no overhead. “We’re all volunteers,” Stark said, “there’s no bricks and mortar, we have no offices, no administrative expenses, we give every penny back to Island cancer patients … it’s very gratifying to see the good we’re doing isn’t siphoned off into bureaucratic nonsense.”

But providing financial aid paints only part of the picture of what MVCSG provides. From the beginning, the group provided emotional support to people, and that remains a big part of its charter.

“The group allows people to get together, and share their experiences and talk about their fears and anxieties,” Terre Young, MVCSG board member, said. Originally the support group met at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and until recently it met every Wednesday at the Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven. Since the coronavirus, the meetings have been held on Zoom.

“We live in New England,” Susan Markwica, a cancer patient and MVCSG member, said. “People are more reserved, sometimes it’s hard to talk about feelings, but the groups are a wonderful way to get people out of their shells. It’s most therapeutic to say your own story out loud and to hear other people’s stories. You can say, ‘I’m really frightened and afraid,’ and know that other people will understand.”

Another advantage of the groups is that both caregivers and family are welcome to attend. “I said to my daughter, ‘It’s tougher on family members than it is on me,’” Markwica said. “She said, ‘No, it’s harder on you.’ I said, ‘It’s hard on both of us.’”

Bill Glazier of Edgartown came down with cancer about a year ago. “It was devastating,” he said; “I had always been healthy, and suddenly I wasn’t.” He saw an ad in the paper for a cancer support group meeting and decided to attend. “The biggest dilemma I had,” Glazier said, “was what should I tell my kids. Am I better off telling them or not?” The group convinced Glazier that yes, indeed, he should be totally open with his family. “It’s just a wonderful support system,” Glazier said.

When Mike Marshand of Oak Bluffs was first diagnosed with lymphoma four years ago, he had never heard of the MVCSG. His oncologist had told him that if he was looking for information on cancer, try to stay away from going online. He found the weekly group meetings to be so helpful that he felt compelled to give back to the group, and is now a member of the board.

In addition to providing financial aid and group support, MVCSG can direct cancer patients and their families to invaluable resources for financial assistance, and help with things like housing and transportation. For instance, there are many places in the Boston area for patients and their families to stay that are either offered at a reduced rate or free of charge. The average cost of hotels in the greater Boston area is around $350 per night.

The Steamship Authority offers MVCSG patients discounted fares, and Angel Flight NE is an amazing service that flies patients on the Vineyard, and throughout the Northeast, to medical appointments, all absolutely free of charge. “The pilots are like my family,” Susan Markwica said.

The Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group survives on donations. “We have no big donors,” Myra Stark said, “lots of small donations we get from fundraising.” And the help from the MVCSG is more in demand now than ever before. “The Vineyard has become a retirement destination,” Barbara Rush said, “so the demographics on the Island are skewing older and older, and that’s why we’re seeing higher cancer numbers.”

The two big fundraising events of the year for the MVCSG are the Evening Under the Stars and the tennis tournament, both held at Farm Neck Golf Club, but due to COVID-19, both events have been canceled.

If you’re interested in donating to this worthy organization, go to mvcancersupport.org or call 508-627-7958.

“If anyone has a place in their pocket and a place in their heart,” Terre Young said, “we’d welcome your donation.”