Helping Our Women

By Brian Morris

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

When a woman faces a cancer diagnosis, it's a permanently life-altering experience - and finding the right support system can help soften the impact. There are also practical issues like getting to and from treatment, an especially big problem on the Outer Cape. For fourteen years, a Provincetown organization has helped women deal with the emotional impacts, and day-to-day implications, of living with cancer or other chronic illnesses. Outer Cape correspondent Brian Morris has this report.

In 1998, Fayette Watkis of Provincetown got the news every woman dreads: She had breast cancer.

Fayette Watkis: "Didn't have a clue what to do next. I just thought, well, this is it, I'm a goner. It's just an overwhelming diagnosis to begin with, and just the insurance issues, the financial aid, all of that."

Watkis tells her story while petting Roosevelt, her friend's Yorkshire terrier, who eventually falls asleep in her lap. She says the diagnosis eight years ago redefined her life.

Fayette Watkis: "It changes everything. It changes your life. It will never be the way it was before your cancer. And I guess it depends on your outlook whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. And it has been a tremendously wonderful thing for me."

Watkis credits her upbeat outlook to a Provincetown-based organization called Helping Our Women. The non-profit was founded in 1993, originally as a resource for women with cancer. They now also offer services to women with chronic illnesses like heart disease. Executive Director Irene Rabinowitz says there's a common thread of issues that Helping Our Women seeks to address.

Irene Rabinowitz: "So there's the emotional issues that come out of the fear of losing your home, or the fear of poverty, or the fear of being alone, essentially, to deal with this - especially when we live in communities, we serve communities where people have moved here from elsewhere quite often and may not have a family close by to be able to help."

Helping Our Women operates rent-free out of a small but airy second-floor space, a stone's throw from the clamor of Commercial Street. They currently serve 184 women from Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet and Eastham. Because they're not disease-specific, they don't qualify for State or Federal funding, relying instead on fundraising events, private donations and funding from several towns.

Helping Our Women provides need-based financial assistance for things like medical bills, utilities, eyeglasses, or dental care. They also have a core of volunteer drivers who shuttle clients back and forth to medical appointments each month. Cancer survivor and Provincetown resident Sylvia Newman found that service invaluable.

Sylvia Newman: "I turned to Irene for help, because I had to go to Cape Cod Hospital. It's about an hour and a half to drive, and I could not drive during my treatment. And I found great supports in H.O.W., financially, emotionally, and drives. Every time I call her, she said, 'Well, I don't know, I'm going to try to arrange something.' But she's always come through, and she was there for me every time I needed it."

Helping our Women also runs two weekly support groups, one for cancer survivors and the other for those with chronic illness. Irene Rabinowitz recalls the day she filled in for the cancer support group facilitator.

Irene Rabinowitz: "I did witness once with somebody who was literally terrified of this diagnosis of cancer. And I saw this group of women including Fayette and Sylvia in action, really taking care of somebody and explaining what it was gonna be like, and saying, 'We'll be there with you. We'll be on the phone with you beforehand. We'll talk to you afterwards.' And they really offered support."

Although Fayette Watkis is now in remission, she still finds great value in attending the support groups each week.

Fayette Watkis: "People ask eight years out, you know, 'Why are you still going to a cancer support group? Aren't you cured?' And it's not about that. It's a whole transformation of your life, and that might take the rest of your life. But as long as I feel that I'm getting a benefit, or that I could be a benefit to others, I'll be coming there every week."

Irene Rabinowitz says most women facing cancer are overcome by a sense of not knowing where to turn for help. Many also feel initially that they're alone in the battle. Helping Our Women aims to ease the burden by offering logistical and financial solutions, and by giving cancer survivors the chance to strengthen each other by sharing their experiences and voicing their feelings.

If you'd like more information about Helping Our Women's services, go to helpingourwomen.org. Or call 508-487-4357.

Broadcast June 1, 2006

Brian Morris reports for the Cape and islands NPR Stations,