SANDPOINT — The Idaho Hospital Association estimates that nearly one in two Idaho residents will face cancer during their lifetime, according to historical information compiled by the Cancer Data Registry of Idaho.
In Bonner and Boundary counties, Community Cancer Services has been reaching out to help cancer patients and their families for the past six years. Both of the northern counties track the statewide average of an almost 50 percent incidence of the disease. Prior to 2002, however, finding solace, support and solidarity was difficult for those individuals.
“One of our founders was Heather Gibson, who fought her own eight-year battle with cancer until she passed away in 2006,” said Stephanie Moss, a certified nursing assistant who joined CCS as program director two and a half years ago. “When she was going through treatment, she met several other locals with cancer. There was nothing here for them locally except the American Cancer Society, which would route people to places like Seattle for services.”
Fueled by funding from the community and energy from her friend and co-founder, local nurse practitioner Cynthia Dalsing, Gibson and CCS began to fulfill a mission of providing education, information and direct support to people with cancer and the loved ones around them.
The programs started small, with gas vouchers for patients who needed to travel in order to receive treatment and group sessions that allowed them to share the experience of taking a journey that is both medical and emotional — something CCS calls the Cancer Journey.
“Currently, we are serving 293 active members,” said Moss. “That figure is much higher when you take into account the fact that we also serve their families, friends, children and neighbors.”
The CCS office on Michigan Street — more commonly known as “Heather’s House” — is a cozy space, with plenty of comfortable chairs, subdued lighting, a lending library with books and video resources and an Internet research station for its members to use. But the most powerful service the office provides is contained in the pages of the resource manuals the organization has put together.
“Our clients spend so much time in doctor’s offices and hospitals that it’s nice to be able to give them an open-armed welcome in a warm atmosphere,” Moss said. “We’re able to assist cancer patients who need to travel by helping them with the best driving route and telling them about things like where to stay, where to eat and what children’s activities are available when they get there.
“A lot of people fall through the cracks of being able to find these resources on their own, because they’re so caught up in the cancer diagnosis and the devastation it can bring,” the program director continued. “Finding those resources for them has been a wonderful support service.”
CCS addresses another type of devastation that comes with a cancer diagnosis — the impact on a patient’s finances. Completely apart from the soaring medical expenses are the costs incurred from driving to treatments, paying for food and lodging on those trips and budgeting for new medications. To help defray some of those costs, the local organization provides approximately $2,000-a-month in gas vouchers, as well as lodging assistance for patients who travel to and from doctor’s appointments and medical treatments. In addition, CCS often distributes food and prescription vouchers and provides assistance for insurance co-payments to the people it serves, Moss said.
For those who are unable to drive, the group offers the services of 18 volunteer drivers.
Although grants account for part of the group’s funding formula, community donations are the lifeblood that keeps services flowing. Tax-deductible donations stay in the local community, according to the program director.
“So you’re not only helping someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, you’re also helping the local economy,” she said.
Donations have dropped off during the economic downturn — something that concerns CCS greatly, since the group is forced to take a short-term view, financially, as it battles cancer over the long term. More troubling is the timing involved: The number of dollars coming in has shrunk as the number of clients continues to climb.
“We’re getting 12-14 new clients every month,” Moss said. “The number of people being diagnosed with cancer in Bonner and Boundary County keeps growing and that means the need for services is growing, as well.”
Along with a steady infusion of donations, CCS currently is looking for additional volunteer drivers to help transport patients from Clark Fork, Priest River and Bonners Ferry.
Most referrals for CCS services come from the Kootenai Cancer Center and, closer to home, the Kootenai Cancer Center at Bonner General Hospital.
“We work closely with Community Cancer Services and their education materials, wig closet and network of support groups,” said Debi Schoonover, clinical supervisor for Kootenai Cancer Center at BGH. “We’re not trying to duplicate all the things they provide, because they’re already doing them so well.”
While regional cancer treatment centers are raising awareness of CCS, national media have increased visibility about the disease itself as celebrities such as Patrick Swayze and Farrah Fawcett have waged their own battles in public.
“That’s changing the way cancer is viewed — it’s not so hush-hush anymore,” Moss said. “Awareness and prevention are key. I started working here right before my thirtieth birthday and I had never had a mammogram. Then I found out we had clients in their twenties — even clients in their teens — who have cancer. I went out and got a mammogram within the first month of getting the job.
“People tend to hide behind the façade of ‘It’s not going to happen to me,’” she added. “But having that bubble around you doesn’t protect you. Cancer can happen to anybody at any time.”
And when it does, the doors to Heather’s House are flung wide to accept them and offer help.
“The reason we’re here is because Heather Gibson was able to gather people in the community to share her vision,” Moss said. “This was her dream — and now it’s her legacy.”
Community Cancer Services is located at 1215 Michigan St., Suite B, in Sandpoint. To make donations, volunteer or get more information, call (208) 255-2301 or visit: www.communitycancerservices.org.