Gilda's Club: Support Community for Cancer Patients
PRA Health Sciences
PRA Health Sciences

Gilda’s Club was founded in memory of the talented Saturday Night Live comedian, Gilda Radner, who passed away from ovarian cancer in 1989. While living on the West Coast, Gilda was part of a support community for people with cancer (and their families) called the Wellness Community. Before passing away, she expressed her desire for a similar community on the East Coast. Her husband at the time, Gene Wilder, along with other friends of Gilda’s – including her psychotherapist Joanna Bull, who is still involved with the organization – established the first Gilda’s Club in New York City in 1995. Gilda’s Club Chicago (GCC) was the fourth Clubhouse to open, celebrating its 20th anniversary on February 14, 2018.

Maggie Bahler, Director of Marketing, talks about the Club's mission and what it means to patients and their families.

Thanks to the participation of many ASCO 2018 attendees, we assembled 750 chemo care bags for Gilda’s Club of Chicago!

Tell us how Gilda’s Club got started and how it has evolved in 20 years.

Over the past 20 years, GCC has expanded to meet the growing need for psychosocial support by making our free program available in many of Chicago’s medical centers. This enables us to reach patients where they are already receiving medical treatment. GCC now operates satellites at Advocate Christ Medical Center and Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Mount Sinai Hospital and the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.

GCC has also made it a priority to reach under-resourced communities. GCC hired a Program Coordinator for Latino and Community Initiatives in 2004, enabling us to greatly expand the program in the Latino community and at the Clubhouse. In 2012, partly due to the support of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, GCC hired a Program Coordinator for African American and Faith Initiatives. This position engages churches, offers activities at Mount Sinai Hospital and greatly increases our reach into African American churches and the community as a whole.

In 2009, Gilda’s Club Worldwide merged with the Wellness Community to form the Cancer Support Community. Gilda’s Club Chicago is now one of more than 50 affiliates in the U.S. and Canada providing free social and emotional support for anyone impacted by cancer. Our affiliation with Cancer Support Community enables us to offer free resources to our participants such as distress screening, educational materials and an online platform called “MyLifeLine.Org.” In addition, we have access to Cancer Support Community’s Research and Training Institute. RTI provides cutting edge research on psychosocial care which supports and informs the programming that we offer to our participants.

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Your mission is to ensure that all people impacted by cancer are empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action and sustained by community. How do you accomplish this? What services do you provide?

Gilda’s Club Chicago provides information, tools to help navigate living with cancer and the opportunity to give and receive support from others who share a personal connection to cancer. People facing any cancer diagnosis are welcome. Members are the true experts, both in determining the programs they need and in their ability to give and receive support in a community setting.

The program includes support groups, educational lectures, healthy lifestyles workshops (mind-body, stress reduction, nutrition), social opportunities and resource referrals. These five core components have been shown to empower members to develop greater social connections, an increased sense of control and improved communication with their healthcare team. By gaining perspective that they are not alone and by interacting with others who have been in a similar situation, members learn from each other and gain skills and a supportive network.

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What do you think Gilda Radner would have appreciated about the club named in her honor? How do you think you honor her legacy?

When Gilda visited a cancer support community in Los Angeles she suddenly discovered that she was not alone. Her feeling that no one, not even caring family and friends could possibly understand how she felt along with the thousand other challenges that people with cancer face, found intimate company that an individual therapist cannot provide. Joining with others who were going through the same thing, Gilda reclaimed her sense of humor and joined “an elite club,” as she put it, that she’d “rather not belong to.” We honor her legacy every day by creating this warm and welcoming community of support that she envisioned for anyone impacted by cancer. I think Gilda would be amazed today to know how many hundreds of thousands of people have not had to face cancer alone because of her experience.

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Tell us about your Cancer for the Workplace initiative.

“GCC@Work” is free to any workplace and provides ways to support coworkers, including those caring for a loved one with cancer, who are going through common cancer-related challenges. Highlights include the social and emotional impact on a person living with cancer and caregivers and “how to create a supportive workplace” from the manager and coworker points of view – including what to say, or not to say.

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In your experience, what is the hardest part of a cancer diagnosis for the patient? And for their loved ones?

It is difficult to pinpoint the hardest part of a cancer diagnosis because it may be different for each person. There are many challenges for the patient. Not only is there the pain of the cancer and associated treatments and side effects, but there are also significant social and emotional effects as well, including loss of hope; a decreased sense of personal control; feeling isolated, distress, or fears about the future; and worries about family and friends. For the caregiver, there are often additional worries about practical needs such as how to get their loved one to medical appointments, who’s going to care for the children, chores around the house, and financial strain. For the rest of the family and friends, there are fears regarding the person’s current and future health as well as concerns about how to be most helpful during a difficult time.

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What do you enjoy the most about the work that you do at Gilda’s Club?

It is amazing to see people from all backgrounds come together and support one another in such a meaningful and compassionate way. I love that I get to create the activities and space to allow that to happen.

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