An essential component of cancer treatment is community, says Sandi Ernst Perez, who survived two occurrences of malignant melanoma in the last 15 years.
Perez, who has experience as a psychologist and nonprofit manager, will oversee the new northern Arizona branch of Cancer Support Community of Arizona, which will start offering services in Flagstaff this summer.
The Phoenix-based organization is an independent nonprofit of Cancer Support Community, a worldwide network encompassing 175 locations. According to its website, it provides free supportive services to more than one million people each year in the areas of emotional support, health and nutrition, education, social engagement and referrals to other community resources.
Perez said these services include predominantly support groups of up to 12 people, as well as creative, reflective and movement-based activities, like therapeutic journaling, meditation and yoga. The Phoenix location has even offered drumming circles in its 20-year history.
These services are always available for free to people with any type of cancer, at any stage, as well as the family, friends and caregivers of individuals who have cancer, and will vary based on participant needs and responses.
Perez said the upcoming summer programs will meet weekly for 10 weeks.
“Flagstaff is rich in a lot of different programs, so we want to offer something different. We want to listen to the community and fill the gaps of things that are not available,” she said.
Support groups and activities are led by trained psychologists and social workers, with help from volunteers. Perez will be leading groups while she works to hire more mental health professionals.
Currently, the northern Arizona team is comprised of four members: Perez; Cindy May, owner of Cindy May Marketing; Heidi Hansen, the City of Flagstaff’s director of economic vitality; and Liz McGinlay, development director of the Museum of Northern Arizona.
In her own journey with breast cancer, May said she struggled finding resources to help her answer tough questions, like how to help her children and family cope with her situation.
“I just didn’t know how to help them. I didn’t really think about it at the time because I was so focused on my treatment, but looking back, I see how it impacted them. They had to grow up fast and there are still things that linger in their hearts and minds,” she said.
May said her children have recently used CanSurround, an online tool offered by Cancer Support Community to manage cancer-related stress, even though it has been years since their mother was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer.
Hansen said she was eager to join the team because of the recent death of a friend due to cancer.
“One of the things I would have liked for her to have here was a larger support group and other activities she could have done with people with similar issues so she didn’t feel alone. It’s great to have all that we can here so that there is no stone unturned,” she said.
ESTABLISHING A HOME
The organization is working with numerous local groups including Native Americans for Community Action (NACA), Coconino Community College, the NARBHA Institute, Flagstaff Medical Center, Arizona Oncology and Aspen Integrative Medical Center.
NACA has offered to share its health center space on Cedar Avenue until Perez finds a more permanent facility. She said the number, type and location of such facilities in northern Arizona will be based entirely upon community needs, which could include expanded resources specifically for members of the Navajo Nation. Flagstaff is just the starting point.
“Northern Arizona is a huge county, so access to care is much harder. Flagstaff is a hub for northern Arizona; a lot of people come here for their cancer care,” she said.
Perez said there is already interest in Sedona and Cottonwood as well.
Though the organization is an expansion of the Phoenix program, all the funds gathered in the region will stay in northern Arizona to increase program offerings for members of the community whose lives have been affected by cancer.
“As soon as you walk out that door after chemo treatments, that’s where the real battle begins. Without a place to go, people are kind of on their own. But now, they’ll have a place to go to get that support that is so critical to the healing process,” May said.