|Any location with the word ‘cancer’ in its name can’t be a desirable destination — or can it?“This is not a place of doom and gloom; that’s a misconception some might have about us,” said Cheryl Gorski, director of the Cancer House of Hope, a nonprofit agency that provides support groups and other services for those whose lives have been touched by cancer.
“It’s actually a hopeful and encouraging place,” she told The Healthcare News. “There’s laughter here, and people can feel comfortable confiding in a counselor and the group. And everything is confidential. They don’t necessarily get that kind of emotional support at the doctor’s office, and they’re not always getting it at home, either — but they can always get it here.”
The House of Hope is actually two houses — one in Westfield and a newer location in Springfield, but both offer similar support programs.
“What makes us different is that our groups are smaller and more intimate than what you might find in the hospital setting,” said Gorski. “We also break people up by where they are in their cancer journey: ‘A Recent Diagnosis,’ ‘What Now? When Treatment Ends,’ ‘Living with Advanced Cancer,’ etc.”
Actually, there are nearly two dozen different support groups, with topics ranging from different types of cancer — blood, breast, prostate, and melanoma, for instance — to bereavement, relaxation, and spirituality; there’s even a group specifically for loved ones and caregivers.
“Our counselors are all licensed social workers, and they just mainly listen,” said Gorski. “It’s helpful for people, when they first come to a group, to hear other people’s experiences and understand that they’re not alone in what they’re going through.”
Meeting a Need
The original Cancer House of Hope was opened on Court Street in Westfield 11 years ago by Gaetana Aliotta, herself a cancer survivor. “While she was going through her treatment, she thought it would be great to have a location away from a medical facility where people could go to find support and hope, and to connect with other people going through this,” Gorski said.
With support from Noble Hospital and several corporate sponsors, Aliotta was able to do just that, bringing support programs to area cancer patients free of charge.
“That Westfield program has definitely grown to be a considerable presence in that community, and we’ve added more programs over the years,” said Gorski, adding that the center’s success made opening the Springfield location (on Plumtree Road) three years ago an easy decision — particularly since the city is home to two major cancer treatment facilities, the D’Amour Center for Cancer Care, affiliated with Baystate Health, and the Sr. Caritas Cancer Center at Mercy Medical Center.
“We felt at the time that it would be great to offer another location in Springfield, near the other cancer centers,” she said. For both locations, “we get a lot of referrals from doctors, nurses, and social workers, and some people, or their family or friends, drive by and see us.”
If not for the signage, it would be difficult to identify either Cancer House of Hope as anything but, well, a house. Both are situated in quiet, residential neighborhoods, a decision that makes sense considering the home-like environment that employees and volunteers try to create inside the centers, Gorski said.
“When people come in, they’re greeted by very kind, compassionate volunteers, some of whom have been with us since the houses opened,” she noted. “People are able to come here and be themselves, and to find what they need; along with the support programs, both locations have lending libraries, and we also offer wigs, bras, prostheses, and some medical equipment we’ve received as donations.”
Indeed, the vision statement of the Cancer House of Hope positions it not only as a place of healing, but a broad resource for cancer sufferers and their families — a vision that Gorski had no trouble catching when she came on board as director.
“The first time I heard about this was at a chamber of commerce breakfast, and just hearing about it and reading some information made me think of the experiences of my loved ones who had cancer,” said Gorski. “I thought, ‘if only they had a place like that when they were sick.’ When the job opened up, it was a no-brainer for me to apply.”
The Cancer House of Hope delivers programs to about 200 people each month in Westfield and about 100 in Springfield — and the center’s offerings continue to grow, with recent additions including a life-coaching initiative, a men’s social and support group, and programs called ‘Writing for Wellness’ and ‘Walking Toward Wellness,’ the latter a collaboration with Springfield College. “We’re also starting a group for moms with cancer,” Gorski added.
Beyond the support groups, the Cancer House of Hope has also launched complementary-therapy programs in Reiki and yoga. Reiki is a manipulation of the body’s energies that promotes healing and restores a sense of well-being, while the yoga class offers individualized assistance for increasing strength, flexibility, and balance, while including meditation for deep relaxation. The programs are available not only to cancer patients, but anyone who has ever been diagnosed with cancer, as well as recent cancer caregivers.
“If people go and get Reiki privately, it will cost them quite a bit per hour, but here it’s free,” said Gorski. “A lot of people rely on it to help alleviate the symptoms of chemotherapy. They find it gives them energy.
“I always tell people who come for information to make an appointment for Reiki,” she continued, adding that she wants to see other outside-the-box additions to the agency’s core services. “We find that people are often pleasantly surprised that we offer Reiki and yoga — and that’s why we want to do more things like life coaching and writing. Not everything we do follows the support-group model; there are a lot of other ways we can meet the needs of people.”
Future programs will include nutritional counseling and a dance-and-movement class. Drop-ins are welcome for everything but Reiki, Gorski said, although it doesn’t hurt to call for information: (413) 562-0236 in Westfield and (413) 782-2600 in Springfield. The Westfield house is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., while Springfield is open the same hours, except for Friday, when it’s closed. Most support groups take place in late afternoon or early evening.
“We’re really the only location in Western Mass. that offers cancer support services in a home-like setting,” Gorski said. “Working here is a privilege because I really get to help so many people. We have a mission, and we’re able to meet it every day.”