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Telling stories helps survivors deal with cancer

Annies Cancer Club gives a forum for tales of heartache, warning and triumph


by: REVIEW PHOTO: CLIFF NEWELL - Annie Winchester greets Dick Bailey, the first person who ever contacted her about joining Annie's Cancer Club. Bailey has overcome cancer three times. It is the last Saturday of the month, and as usual Annie’s Cancer Club is meeting during the morning at Blue Moon Coffee in Lake Grove. More and more people keep showing up.

There is Jan, who wants to tell everybody about Breast Friends, an organization that helps women deal with breast cancer.

There is Angela, the oncology nurse, who has been such a great help to some other people at the meetings. But she wants to be a better nurse and that is why she is here.

There’s Dick, who is 84 years old and has beaten cancer three times. He’s a tough guy, a fighter.

There’s Terri, who deals with inoperable lung cancer while being the caretaker for her husband, who has advanced Parkinson’s disease. He has just fallen and broken a hip.

Annie Winchester started her club last year because she wanted to “give back” after all of the help she received while she battled rectal cancer. Winchester is grateful (“Dr. Steven Hashiguchi is the reason I’m alive”) and has an original mind (“I’m quirky”), and bringing together cancer survivors to tell their stories was an original idea. The stories can be harrowing, and when tears flow Winchester gets up to rub shoulders and give hugs. She has gentleness and compassion in abundance.

“This club has turned out even better than I thought it would,” Winchester said. “I am very fortunate to meet these fabulous people. I hope this is a comforting, spiritual and emotionally safe place for them to be.”

The stories can be very different

Talking about cancer you have survived or are still fighting can be very difficult. But Annie’s Cancer Club is just the right place for it. The stories can be very different.

Dick Bailey, a three-time winner over cancer, was there as a messenger. He wants to get the word out that early detection is the best possible way of dealing with cancer.

“We should get out to the public as much as we can,” Bailey said. “Early detection really paid off for me.”

Karen Nelson’s story was heartbreaking. She was very emotional as she told about her struggle that goes on and on and has no end in sight. Sometimes telling a story is the only answer for dealing with such deep pain.

However, Jan Rosenthal had something surprising to say: Cancer can be a good experience.

“When I talked to Annie about coming here, she said, ‘Just be yourself,’ ” Rosenthal said. “I told her, ‘That’s what I’m afraid of.’ ”

Actually, Rosenthal is gallant, articulate and resourceful, because she has shaped her struggle against cancer into something that enhances her life.

“Having cancer changed my life. It was a real positive experience,” Rosenthal said. “I am no longer the stressed out, rushed person I used to be, and I don’t want to go back. When I got cancer I had to finally take time for myself.”

Rosenthal is a special person, although she denies it.

“People tell me, ‘You’re so strong. You’re so positive,’ ” Rosenthal said. “What else am I supposed to be?”

‘I started crying’

At Annie’s Cancer Club the stories told might put you through a ringer, give you hope or make you laugh. Winchester says one of the most amazing stories belongs to Dara Charlton. Just by looking at Charlton’s face you can tell a lot about her — her suffering, her determination to live. Her story shows well just how treacherous an enemy that cancer can be.

“I had always been extra pro-active about my health and preventing cancer,” Charlton said. “I was on a vegan diet, I ate organic foods. I moved here from L.A. because I wanted to live in a clean place.” She even got herbs from a Chinese doctor.

For years it seemed that Charlton’s precautions were paying off. Tests found no evidence of cancer. Yet seven years after she moved to Oregon, now a mother with children ages 3 and 5, Charlton began getting very tired. She went in for tests and they were inconclusive. Even when she went in for testing at OHSU, she admitted, “Cancer was the furthest thing from my mind.”

“Then I got a call from a doctor who told me I had a really, really rare form of thyroid cancer and that I needed surgery. I was shocked. They took a blood test that showed I had 14,000 calcitonins. Normal was zero. I started crying. A huge lump was found showing I had medullar thyroid cancer. It had spread everywhere. I woke up with tubes everywhere. My cancer was so aggressive and rare.

“Why? I grew up next to a nuclear plant in L.A. and I had five friends with thyroid cancer. I thought there had to be a connection.”

By the time she had her second surgery in April 2012, Charlton said, “I was terrified. They went in through my breast bone. But the blood test showed the operation was unsuccessful.”

Fortunately, Dr. Gregory Nigh in Portland was able to help Charlton by proscribing a regimen of supplements, injections and vitamin therapy, anything to slow down the spread of her cancer. She has enough strength to deal with her stressful career as a mental health professional and raise her two kids.

“Sleep is more important than trying to be the perfect mom,” Charlton said. “I’m kinder and gentler to myself.”

Annie’s Cancer Club has been crucial for Charlton in her battle against cancer. As soon as she read an article about the club she contacted Winchester.

“I always thought, ‘How can I help others?’ ” Charlton said. “I met Annie and we really clicked. It is so nice to connect with local people who have experienced what I have. We can vent about kids, we can cheer on people who are doing well. We can celebrate a person who ran a marathon after having colon cancer. We can help a woman who lost her sister. Annie opens up to anybody who wants support.

“I have learned so much on how to take care of myself. Now I want to help others.”

Finding a new location

Apparently, the only problem with Annie’s Cancer Club is that it is getting too big. The top item on the group’s agenda is to find a larger place to meet. Growth is something Winchester is prepared to deal with. Even before her club had its first meeting she thought it had potential to go national.

After all, where else could you meet such “fabulous people”?

“I see so much courage here,” said Angela Smith, the nurse who did so much to help Winchester through her cancer ordeal. “I’ve gained insight on how to make dealing with cancer easier and smoother.”

To find out more about Annie’s Cancer Club, call her at 503-791-0744 or go on Facebook. Winchester said the club is of a secular nature and all people are welcome to attend.




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