Friday, December 25, 2009


The Gift of Community
by Kathleen O’Keefe-Kanavos

THIS CHRISTMAS WILL BE disheartening for many of us. Our unstable economy, dwindling financial security, home foreclosures, and job losses will not pause for the holiday season. Add health issues to that equation and the result is few, if any, gifts beneath the Christmas Tree. However, there is a bright star in our dark night: community support. We are bigger than the sum of our problems. We belong to the community of mankind. Fellowship and help networks filled with resources and hope are available to everyone. So are sympathetic shoulders to cry on.
In my work as a phone counselor for the R.A. BLOCH CANCER FOUNDATION, I recently received a call from a woman called Lisa, from California. It soon became apparent that this woman, who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer recurrence, needed a whole lot more than just my shoulder for support.
“I can’t start my cancer treatments!” the hysterical voice on the phone cried. “I have to pack all of my belongings because the bank is foreclosing on my home. I’m being thrown out into the street and I have nowhere to go!”
I heard the phone drop to the floor, followed by loud weeping. I felt my heart sink. I wanted to cry with her but that wouldn’t help either of us. So I waited for Lisa to retrieve the phone and resume her tale. Sometimes just listening is the first step in helping.
“I’m the last of my family,” she sobbed and explained that her father and brother had died of cancer last year. Her mother had died two years ago. Her dog was her only companion and she was running out of dog food. “If I start my treatments, I won’t have enough energy to pack, and my things are all that I have left of my family. How can you possibly help me?” she demanded.
Good question! How could I assist a woman in such a severe crisis living on the other side of the country? If stress is a killer, why is this poor woman still alive? Is it any wonder she has cancer, again?
“I don’t want to live anymore!” she moaned. “No one can help me.”
I told her to take a deep breath and reassured her that I have resources and contacts. I could call to get her help. Using The BLOCH FOUNDATION and the ‘PINK’ resource pages from the back of my book, SURVIVING CANCERLAND, I found the toll-free numbers for the director of the Cancer Legal Resource Center in Los Angeles, and the name of an attorney who is a two-time cancer survivor and co-founder of a legal network for cancer patients. Before giving Lisa these phone numbers, I contacted the organizations to be sure they could meet her needs.
Two days later, I followed up with a call to Lisa, and discovered that she had contacted the attorney, and Legal Resource Center. A community animal organization had also donated food for her dog. She sounded much better as she prepared for her treatments. We spoke of the statistically increasing chances of surviving cancer recurrence, due to new treatments, with better results, and fewer side effects.
“Call me if you need me,” I said. “I’m here for you.”
I was reluctant to let Lisa go, but realized I had to respect her ability, and desire to empower herself with these resources.
Unfortunately, Lisa’s story is not the exception during these trying times. Her story, however, has a silver lining, with the uplifting message that community support is crucial during any crisis. As a community, we are our sister’s keepers.

A few days after Lisa’s call, I heard an interesting conversation while standing in a grocery store check-out line. One lady complained about her financial problems to a second woman who responded with, “If you want to change the way your problems appear, change the way you peer at them.” This remark reminded me of the movie Dead Poets Society, in which Robin Williams played an English Professor who encouraged his students to stand on top of their desks to gain a different perspective on life. Another helpful way to achieve this change is by not looking at our problems alone. Like the students in the movie, sometimes we need a guide to help us process challenges differently.
Getting back to holiday basics, and viewing them from a different perspective by remembering the true message of Christmas may also help reduce this season’s stresses. Christmas was a message of hope and joy embodied in the form of a new life: a homeless infant born in a barn with a manger for a crib. This child did not receive piles of expensive gifts. He received a roof over his head, and one small heartfelt gift from each of three wise men.
In keeping with the true tradition of Christams, my husband and I have decided not to exchange Christmas gifts this year. Instead, we are going to give them to children in need within our community. This year we will view Christmas from a differnet perspective, that of the Wise Men.
The internet is rich in local resources for women in crisis. With our extended community of world-wide “womenkind” we have unlimited assets from which to draw at our fingertips. If you know anyone in crisis, please share this article to help them during the holiday season and beyond. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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