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Gilda’s Club Louisville is a local nonprofit that offers help and services to anyone affected by cancer — whether that’s someone newly diagnosed, a survivor, their family or friends. Named after comedian Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989, the first Gilda’s Club opened in New York City in 1995. The Louisville location opened in 2004.
Radner once said, “Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I would rather not belong to.” While those diagnosed will agree with this, the intention of the organization is to provide an insider’s club and community of people who understand, have been through it and can offer support.
In light of our in-depth story about 9-year-old Harper Wehneman, Insider Louisville talked with Joe Ferry, the Chief Mission Officer at Gilda’s Club Louisville, about what they offer children and their families struggling with cancer.
Insider Louisville: What kind of services does Gilda’s Club offer children with cancer and their families?
Joe Ferry: “When cancer happens to one person in the family, it happens to everyone else, too. One person gets it, but everyone is affected by it.” This was said by an 8-year-old whose brother had cancer. It pretty much sums up what Gilda’s Club Louisville is all about. We are a community of men, women and children who are living with cancer — every day. What we offer is the opportunity for families affected by cancer to gather together with others who share a similar journey and widen their network of support — the opportunity to meet other youth who have or had cancer, parents whose child is living with cancer, and siblings meeting other affected siblings. Here they can find a whole program of support that they can help create, including support groups, workshops, health and wellness offerings and social events. We also offer family focus: time-limited, solution-focused consult and counseling for families for times when they struggle with the inevitable curve balls a cancer diagnosis bring.
One niche for us seems to be the brothers and sisters of children who have cancer. It is common for one parent to be keeping up with the child who has cancer, the other to be keeping the household running — including job, insurance and otherwise holding down the fort. Siblings have to figure out where they fit in the scheme of things. One unique thing about Gilda’s is that we are not encumbered by our mission and can create out-of-the-box support like a Family Boot Camp, which builds teamwork and enhances family resilience.
IL: What do you think most people would be surprised to know about childhood cancer?
JF: I was schooled early by Nathan, now a young adult with a family of his own. He told me in no uncertain terms, “I am SICK when I am in the hospital. When I am not, I am just a regular kid — GOT IT?” I never forgot this lesson. Perhaps one important thing everyone should know about children with cancer and their siblings is that they are kids first. We shouldn’t be surprised by their insistence on maintaining some sense of “normalcy,” finding humor and the opportunity to play in even some very dire circumstances, and of their need to be treated “normally” by others.
IL: Do you work with a lot of families and children going through this?
JF: It would be more correct to say we help families work together to get through what is one of the most important challenges they could ever face — whatever the outcome. We try to complement what our other cancer care partners provide. We work with families and our community partners to figure out what isn’t happening and try to create that additional support.
IL: What kind of coping mechanisms do you advise? I imagine there’s an incredible shock initially when a child is diagnosed.
JF: Find your network of support and resolve to be inclusive of everyone in the family — including siblings. You are a team ensuring everyone gets through this time the best way you can. Some of the best guidance comes from kids themselves — so ask them.
I’ll leave you with this advice from the youth at our recent summer camp: “Stop. Take a deep breath. And FACE it. You know your gonna make it.” Together you’re going to make it through.