Gilda’s Club: Cancer Networking for Gay Men

by A. Sebastian Fortino

South Florida Gay News

Saturday September 18, 2010

Comedienne Gilda Radner's voice, wit, and laughter was taken from us far too soon when she passed away from ovarian cancer in 1989, at the age of 42. Her husband, actor Gene Wilder, used her untimely passing to create Gilda's Club.

"At Gilda's Club South Florida we provide support and educational programs for anyone affected by cancer. That includes people diagnosed with cancer, their family, friends and caretakers," said Shelley Goren the CEO of the local chapter. "Anyone is eligible to come here for any of our activities and programs free of charge to help them through their cancer, in and out of treatment. We even have programs for people who have been healthy for a year but don't want to loose touch with the organization."

Goren has worked with non-profits here in South Florida for the past 30 years, and Gilda's Club for the past three. She has also worked with such compassionate organizations as the Children's Home Society and Broward House.

"On a large scale," said Goren, "we could have 50 to 80 people in a program. We also offer smaller support groups, sometimes with only a handful of people."

One such smaller group is the Gay Men's Networking Group which works with gay men who have been diagnosed with cancer, their loved ones, and caregivers. It has been in operation for two years. Goren says the group has been quite a success.

Mitchell Rosenwald, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is the facilitator for the Gay Men's Networking Group. He is also a full time professor at Barry University.

"My work at Gilda's Club is part time," said Rosenwald. "In addition to the gay men's group there are also two other groups for men. There is a monthly men's dinner and breakfast."

Of the Gay Men's Networking Group, Rosenwald said that the idea originated with Shelly Goren.

"We had a prostate group which didn't have many gay men attending. There was a gay group a few years before," said Rosenwald, who has been there almost three years. "I also think going forward there should be a lesbian's group to discuss their cancer issues."

As a social worker he outlines three purposes for the group - mutual support, education, and a social aspect. Some of the education for example is sharing different treatment options for different cancers.

The groups meet for 90 minutes. Membership for an initial prostate cancer group was fairly low. Gilda's Club canceled it and replaced it with the gay men's group. They also extend outreach beyond their Fort Lauderdale facility.

"About a year and a half ago at the old GLCC we had an oncologist come in and speak to the group," said Rosenwald. "We also have medical professionals contribute to the meetings - a few times a year. When the doctors are there it's more of a Q&A."

Since working with the group Rosenwald says he has noticed some disparities in cancer awareness in the gay community.

"So much attention has been devoted to HIV," which Rosenwald admits is necessary and important. "However, what about other health challenges that gay men face? There is another coming out process in terms of cancer diagnosis. Oftentimes people think if you loose weight you have HIV, not that you are going through radiation or chemotherapy."

As with any health issue, communication and having other people to talk to, is a remarkable healing therapy. A positive influence can help the body begin to heal itself.

"What works for many men is to think 'Cancer doesn't have me, but I have cancer.' It's a key ingredient for both their physical and mental health," added Rosenwald.

"We've been a part of Gilda's Club for the past three months," said Dr. C. Earl Fox, M.D., Ph.D, who is currently Executive Director with the Florida Public Health Institute and a Research Professor at the Miller School of Medicine. "There are about 15 to 20 people active in the group. There are a lot of gay men in the Fort Lauderdale area who don't even know it exists. I'm a physician, and I didn't even know such a group existed until a friend of mine who went through prostate cancer and elected to have the same surgery I am going to have in a few weeks encouraged me to go."

The "we" Fox speaks of is his partner of 19 years, Steve Weldon, who supports his partner by being active in Gilda's Club. Fox's clinical training is in pediatrics, but his board certification, and experience is in preventive medicine and public health.

"I was head of the health department for the state of Alabama," Fox told SFGN. "I also ran a federal agency for the Clinton administration in Washington, for the agency that headed up the Ryan White program."

Fox was diagnosed with prostate cancer over four years ago when he was on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University. For the past few years he and his physicians have been watching the cancer.

"It was recommended that I not watch the cancer anymore," said Fox, who explained that after diagnosis some patients are advised to watch and wait until finalizing plans for treatment. "After my fifth prostate biopsy, the urologist recommend I do some type of treatment," said Fox. "I have decided to do surgery, although some men elect to do less radical approaches such as radiation."

Prostate cancer is not the only type of cancer that the gay men and their loved ones are dealing with at Gilda's Club. Lung and blood cancers are also common. Attendees talk about their needs, feelings and worries at the meetings. This interaction has become a comfort to Fox, his partner and other members.

Fox admits that gay men affected by prostate cancer face a different set of issues than straight men. As it can take a man more than a year to properly heal after invasive surgery, sexual and relationship issues are often perhaps too personal to discuss in a group with straight men.

"Being able to talk to other gay men about what I am facing and what I am going to go through has been a real comfort to me. Even as a physician a part of you tends to be in denial about what's going on," said Fox. "By attending Gilda's Club I realized that I had put it out of my mind for the past few years. I realized my cancer was real. Frankly, I am going to need the group when I go through recovery, post-surgery."

Gilda Radner's strong spirit, when she battled the disease, still showed the warmth of her comedy and humor. Gene Wilder chose the name Gilda's Club after a turn of phrase she adopted post-diagnosis.

"Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I'd rather not belong to," said Radner. However, fortunately for those that come to Gilda's Club locations throughout the country there is a club in which they can come together in fellowship and hope.

The Gay Men's Networking Group meets the second Monday of each month, at 6 p.m., for 90 minutes.

Going forward to foster cancer awareness in the LGBT Community, there will be an LGBT Action Group

Kickoff Party on Tuesday, November 16.

For more information about these scheduled events, and to learn more about Gilda's Club in general, please visit, Gildasclubsouthflorida.org or call 954.763.6776

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