Since 1994, when the Bay Shore-based Long Island group, Breast Cancer Help was founded, it has helped many hundreds of survivors, according to Alex Fezza, executive director. In addition, according to Fezza, it purchased digital mammography systems and other diagnostic machinery for both Stony Brook and North Shore Long Island Jewish Southside Hospitals, helping many more people than it does from the Bay Shore location. The group also provides educational outreach into the high schools, teaching young people that detection should begin early, and cancer is not just an older people’s disease, as is sometimes thought.
The program offers yoga, reflexology or foot massage to aid with the effects of chemo and radiation, and lymphatic drainage for help with lymphedema. There is also a panoply of other activities, including creative writing, art therapy, Reiki, one on one psychotherapy, and support groups. The organization reaches out to people with all types of cancer, not just breast cancer, and the Bay Shore office is named The Long Island Cancer Help and Wellness Center because it offers help to individuals with any kind of cancer.
There is an emphasis on holistic medicine, or medicine that helps the whole person. “The type of service we provide helps the person heal whole again by putting their mind at ease. You can have the doctor put you back together physically, but until you are emotionally put back together, you’re not a whole person. That’s what we do here,” Fezza said.
Classes run Monday through Thursday at different hours of the day and at night. They can last up to 45 minutes to an hour, but art therapy usually runs about 2 hours, and the support groups can run 3 or 4 hours. The entire program is free.
“A support group lets people discuss how they are feeling and how they’ve come through their situation,” Fezza said. The people with greater experience handling their cancer let the more inexperienced know what it’s like. “ It helps people who have just gotten the diagnosis of cancer who are just beginning to go through the treatments realize that it’s not all over and life can go back to normal. The group is there to tell the new people that things can be ok,” Fezza added
Art therapy, he continued, lets people utilize their imagination and express themselves . “People will be asked to express their feelings. Some of them will draw a tree without leaves, some of them will draw flowers blooming. A tree without leaves would indicate to the art therapist that they’re still here, but they’re dormant, it’s wintertime, they have to blossom again. The people who will give you springtime flowers, something more joyful, means they have come through the cancer treatment and they feel better about themselves.”
Lorraine Pace, the founder of Breast Cancer Help, developed pinpointing, mapping clusters where cancer occurred at a higher rate. In 1992 she formed West Islip Breast Cancer Coalition, sending out surveys mapping clusters of cancer, not just breast cancer, in cooperation with the former newspaper Suffolk Life and Stony Brook University Hospital. Environmental studies were done, but unfortunately no causes were found for the cancers.
For one member, Sue Piccinnini, Breast Cancer Help gave her invaluable help. “Breast Cancer Help started offering free programs to cancer survivors in 2003 and that’s when I was diagnosed. I started taking yoga classes. It was an immense help with my flexibility and movement. Since our yoga teacher was also a cancer survivor she knows very well how to tailor a program to each individual who might have different levels of competency. It’s a wonderful program and still is—she’s still our yoga teacher, many years later. “ She explained that yoga is helpful after surgery, and helps with movement, breathing and teaches meditation.
Because she wanted to give back, she led the group therapy when there was no social worker to lead it. She mentions that even Stage 4 survivors are able to thrive now, although they have ups and downs. She feels that in the support group people might meet other people with various kinds of cancer, lung cancer or colon cancer—but it doesn’t make any difference. “Cancer is cancer,” she added. The support group is particularly helpful for people who are recently diagnosed to get support from people who have been there longer, she said.
Although she no longer leads the support group, she continues to help the center. “At first I was devastated like most people are, but it’s become such a major event in my life that I’ve felt I could help those who come after me. It’s my way of giving back. I don’t think I could go on with life and ignore the fact that I had cancer,” she said.