For nearly a half-century, Gila Ben-Jamin had a secret she refused to share. She reluctantly accompanied a friend to a meeting of Tucson Cancer Conquerors 17 months ago and called it life-changing. There, for the first time, she was able to talk about what had once been a taboo subject: “The Big C.”
“One person can change your life. This group has changed me,” she exults. “I never talked about being a 46-year cancer survivor before, and now I brag about it.”
Ben-Jamin is one of several Jewish community members who are avid members and volunteers of TCC, a non-profit that actively supports cancer patients and survivors. Pam Chess and Arlene Kutoroff joined the organization near its inception. “It’s a club that no one wanted to join,” says Kutoroff, the group’s secretary, a 12-year survivor. Chess, the vice-president, discovered the group when she was going through chemo and radiation 16 years ago. “Out of a cancer diagnosis, our blessing was finding each other,” Kutoroff adds.
Marlyne Freedman never had cancer but joined the group as a “buddy.” Buddies, also called supporters or “bras,” make up about 25 percent of the 100 active members. They include family members and friends of survivors or those who didn’t survive. “I wanted to find a way to give back outside the Jewish community,” says Freedman, a former Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona senior vice president who remains active on the JFSA board. She is on the TCC advisory committee, chairing sponsorships.
Chess explains that newcomers are welcomed and offered peer support in an upbeat way. “It’s not a pity party, we laugh a lot,” she says. “You can find someone in the group who has had the same surgery and experience as you, and they can help you repair yourself.”
“The challenge for some women with different or rare cancers is finding someone [on the outside] to talk about it. Family members understand, but they don’t ‘understand.’ You might not be able to talk [to a family member] about how to manage a particular cancer, but the emotions are the same,” says Kutoroff. TCC also provides support resources outside the group. “The philosophy is to support all cancer organizations in town because we’re all in this together.”
They call the group a sisterhood, although a few men do participate. “The men that come are mostly husbands,” says Chess, adding that it’s a challenge for them when the sisters are talking about female body parts in relation to cancer. “Men are less likely to open up.”
“We’re there to deliver meals, caring baskets, take others to treatment, doctor appointments or send cards,” says Freedman. “We let them know we care about them and that they’re not by themselves,” Kutoroff adds. Group activities focus on exercise, nutrition, education, and support, using a comprehensive approach to wellness that is essential to cancer prevention, yet benefits anyone.
In collaboration with Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation, TCC maintains facilities at Brandi Fenton Memorial Park where it recently held a community open house. Member volunteers who are certified personal trainers lead GetFit exercise classes, under the direction of Elizabeth Almli, M.D., the group’s president, volunteer, and a certified oncology personal fitness trainer — also a cancer survivor. Meditative walks are another outdoor program. Nutrition plays a significant role in education, with professional speakers contributing time and expertise. A community organic gardening project at nearby Felicia’s Farm augments nutrition, with being outdoors and social interaction as added benefits.
Focusing on laughter as the best medicine, TCC has an active social calendar of monthly birthday dinner celebrations, networking luncheons, out of town wellness retreats, Coffee Café mornings, happy hours, bowling nights, holiday luncheons, and groups for walking, hiking, and a book club. Donations, sponsorships, and fundraising help subsidize program costs, supplemented by a $50 annual membership fee. “Members are welcome to anything we do, whether they come once or 100 times, whatever meets their needs,” says Kutoroff. Members in treatment are exempt from fees, and scholarships are abundant, she adds.
The group also gathers to celebrate the lives of members who die. TCC commissions a commemorative tile, individualized to the member’s personality, and installs it at Fenton Park. “That’s the beauty of our group, remembering,” says Chess. “It’s from the heart,” Freedman adds.