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How local groups lift burden of cancer patients

Cancer treatment can be a chaotic time for patients and their families, but local nonprofits want to lighten the load.

Glory, Hope & Life is a Gainesville-based organization that tries to make life a little less miserable for people undergoing cancer treatment. 

The group has helped patients purchase wigs, groceries, public transportation, gas for trips and hotel stays if they need to travel for treatment. The organization can also help with some living expenses and sends patients and their loved ones on vacations as a respite from treatment.

Mimi Collins, one of the organization’s board members, said undergoing treatment can affect many aspects of a person’s life.

“People who are in active treatment have stressors that most of us can’t even realize and have tremendous stressors that could have an effect on their treatment. If they can’t get to their treatment, that may cause delays,” Collins said. “It can affect their families, and if they have to take time off work, and they could be the breadwinner. Those distractions can make an awful situation and a challenging situation almost untenable for them.”

Jackie Cooley, another board member, said having even some of their burden lightened can help a patient feel more positive.

“We want to promote a sense of wellbeing and self-esteem, and improve their quality of life,” Cooley said. “They have this huge battle that they’re going through. A lot of them are too sick to work and some of them don’t have money to get to the treatments.”

Help can be needed in unexpected ways — one patient, for example, could not drive to treatments if it was raining because his tires were bald, Cooley said. Glory, Hope & Life was able to buy him a new set of tires.

Many of the people Glory, Hope & Life helps are referrals from the Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s patient navigator program, which pairs patients with a nurse who helps them coordinate their care and educates them about the process. But Collins said so many patients receive care at outpatient facilities now that they may not always end up at the hospital.

Cooley said that many patients the organization works with are traveling to Gainesville for treatment from other communities.

“Gainesville is quite the medical hub, so you have all these small towns in Northeast Georgia that come to Gainesville for medical treatment. … although they live in Cleveland or Blairsville or wherever,” Cooley said.

The organization was created with the merger of three funds: For Her Glory, which works with breast cancer patients; Harvest of Hope, which offers educational outreach and financial help to patients; and Embracing Life, which organizes trips for patients and their loved ones.

Dianne Gaddy and her late husband Phil were surprised by a trip from Glory, Hope & Life in 2008. They went to Alaska, a place Phil had always wanted to visit. The trip was a great reprieve for both of them as Phil underwent brain cancer treatment, Gaddy said.

“I thought at the time it was just for him and memories for him, but he’s not here any longer and I have those memories,” she said.

Getting the call from the Longstreet Clinic informing the couple of the trip from Glory, Hope & Life was the first time they had heard of the nonprofit, Gaddy said. But now she is taking an active role in the group, serving as a board member to give back.

“My husband would be smiling down on me today, giving back to an organization that helped us,” she said.

Working with Glory, Hope & Life is a way for her to honor Phil’s generosity, Gaddy said. A few times while receiving treatment at the Longstreet Clinic, Phil overheard people saying they couldn’t afford the gas to drive home from treatments. He gave money to a nurse to pass on to the other patients, Gaddy said.

“Doing this, I just know his memory lives on,” Gaddy said.

And involvement with the group is a reminder of how a community who cares about its people can accomplish great things, she said.

“Seeing just how many people they help … I never knew it was to this extent, and I am so impressed that a group of compassionate people can get involved and do this much for cancer patients,” Gaddy said.

Other nonprofits work to ease the burden of those dealing with a cancer diagnosis. A relatively recent arrival in Gainesville is the Thumbs Up Mission, part of the Keaton Franklin Coker Foundation. It too funds getaways for families with a member battling cancer.

The foundation’s namesake died in 2014 after a two-year battle with brain cancer. While fighting the disease, the Gainesville family was given a trip by the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“For five glorious days we played and laughed, and banished all cancer treatment activities from our minds,” the foundation explains on its website. “We treasured that gift of time together, but now that Keaton is gone, the value of that treasure is priceless. We will never forget it, and will always be grateful for it.”

The mission sends families away for a weekend retreat. Families are often paired with another that have gone through the ordeal in the past.

But some families and individuals don’t need a trip, whether for a week or a weekend, they just need groceries or a tank of gas — or a little cash to help feed their cats.

Enter the Partnership for Gynecological Cancer Support, a project started by Debbie Torbett and Sue Sigmon-Nosach in Hall County.

The pair met and forged a strong friendship over their shared battles with ovarian cancer. Torbett has since died, having succumbed to cancer in 2014, but not before she and Sigmon-Nosach started raising money for ovarian cancer patients.

At the time, there were few groups supporting ovarian cancer and gynecological cancer in general.

“We were agitated and irritated from the standpoint that there are lots of cancer groups, but gynecological cancers get very little press, we never get jokes, and they run very few races for us,” Sigmon-Nosach said. “We started doing art, and we started selling our art — which surprised the heck out of us — and we were looking for ways to give away the money.”

These days, they’re spending the money raised on plastic.

Most of the beneficiaries of the nonprofit will know it through the $300 Kroger gift cards handed out by chemotherapy nurses with Northeast Georgia Health System and Northside Hospital.

Most people use the cards to buy groceries and gas, but the nonprofit doesn’t exist to push people toward one type of purchase or another — or judge them for what they buy — but to alleviate some of the misery of chemotherapy.

“We selected Kroger because you can go to Kroger and if you want to you can buy dog food or a diamond ring,” she said. “Our intent is whatever makes this patient happy.”

Oncology nurses at the two hospital systems identify patients in need for the nonprofit, which then provides the gift cards to pass on to the patient.

“We seldom meet a client, and that’s OK,” Sigmon-Nosach said. “If you’ve ever had cancer or loved someone who’s had cancer, you would understand that it’s a huge loss of dignity. People prod you and poke you or pull your gown up and do whatever, and you lose that sense of control. 

“By giving them this money and them not knowing where it comes from, it’s a sense of control given back to them.”

But sometimes, the women going through chemotherapy need a little extra help.

“We’ve buried people. We’ve paid electric bills. We’ve paid trailer lot rentals. We’ve done utilities,” she said.

She also has a relationship with Riverside Pharmacy. Many insurers are hesitant to cover the costs of pain medication for terminal cancer patients. In that case, the nonprofit will cover the costs of painkillers.

And on top of those extra services, the nonprofit has given $300 gift cards to more than 1,000 women.

“Our intent is to give away as much as we possibly can to help the people of Georgia,” she said.

Times staff Nick Bowman contributed to this story.

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