October 20, 2018

Companions on a lonely journey to recovery

When Susan Kapadia was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, she felt alone and depressed. Then she found the Breast Cancer Resource Center (BCRC) in Santa Barbara and started — bit by bit — to emotionally recover from it. 

“I felt very comforted here because people knew what I was going through and what I was talking about,” she said. “I felt deep sadness and loss. When I came in, I was always greeted with hugs, and there was no judgment. I never left.”

Kapadia started volunteering for the center, which was established in 1997, until she became a paid member of their four-person staff. Today, she is an administrator, working with the mammogram program. It provides free screenings at a local doctor’s office for women in financial need and sends out reminders for women to have mammograms performed annually.

That’s only part of the mission of the nonprofit, which offers free educational materials, wellness classes, counseling, support and social activities for women diagnosed with breast cancer or benign breast-health issues. There’s financial help for women of any age who have breast cancer and can’t afford their high deductibles or don’t have insurance. (Funds go toward patients’ biopsies and follow-up exams.) 

Since the center opened, it has served more than 2,000 people, according to Kapadia of Ojai. 

“Women come in and they’re in a bad way. They’re frightened,” said Kapadia, who is in her 50s. “Everyone that works here, we’re all survivors. That gives us a certain level of understanding.”

Judy Blanco, 68, of Santa Barbara, the director of volunteers, was diagnosed in 1995, and two years later, she helped start the organization. 

It began, Blanco said, at the suggestion of Dr. Susan Love, a prominent breast cancer research advocate, author and founder of the Revlon UCLA Breast Center who was working with area survivors. Love attended the organization’s first strategy meeting and served as a member of both the board of directors and advisory board. She also helped usher in seed money from Amgen, a pharmaceutical company based in Thousand Oaks, and lent her name to bring awareness to the newly formed organization, although she isn’t presently involved in BCRC’s operations, according to Blanco. 

The center in Santa Barbara was modeled after a similar organization in Sonoma. More than 10 women were there at its inception as volunteers.  

“We do our best to fulfill the needs of the community. I think we’ve done an excellent job for the past 15 years,” Blanco said. “Our clients appreciate that this center is in their community. It is amazing what we are able to accomplish with our small staff and fabulous volunteers.”

Major fundraisers to cover overhead costs are held twice per year. The next one is a holiday tea and fashion show on Dec. 8 in Montecito. 

Throughout the week, the BCRC runs a variety of programs: classes on meditation and art therapy, peer-to-peer support groups and counseling sessions. Newly diagnosed women can participate in the Buddy Program, which sets them up with breast cancer survivors and provides guidance and companionship through the rough times.

Many of the newly diagnosed patients who walk through the door for the first time are nervous and in shock. That changes after they discover the kinds of support the center offers to help them begin their journey through cancer care, according to Blanco. 

“We want [women] to feel empowered when they leave here,” she said. “We want them to know we will help to support them through their treatments and aftercare.”

To help those going into surgery, the center provides an essentials bag that includes bandages, paper to write down appointments and thoughts, water bottles, a camisole and more. Volunteers are also there for families if they have trouble dealing with diagnoses. 

In terms of treatments, women can receive reflexology or Reiki, a hands-on healing technique intended to promote stress reduction and relaxation. There is a lending library that contains audiotapes, DVDs, periodicals and books; staff and volunteers maintain a list of local physicians and online resources, too. A lecture series takes place monthly at local organizations, including the Bronfman Family Jewish Community Center in Santa Barbara. 

“Quite a few patients are Jewish,” Kapadia said. “There is a pretty good Jewish presence here in Santa Barbara.”

Based on her own experience, Kapadia said the BCRC was an “invaluable service.”

“I can really [attest] personally to this,” she said. “If I hadn’t had the support of this organization, and the people associated with it, it would have been a really dark and lonely place to be in. It’s wonderful that this organization has managed to keep its doors open and thrive and grow as it has.”