Hope Connections for Cancer Support in Bethesda offers comfort to patients, families

March 21, 2012

When Susan, a scientist in Bethesda, found out her husband had cancer diagnosed, she did the logical thing: research. She buried herself in encyclopedias and medical journals but found little solace. Something was missing.

Hoping to fill the hole, Susan, 59, who asked that her last name not be used because of privacy reasons, joined a support group. She left the first meeting feeling worse than when she entered.

“It was a lecture that provided cold, hard information,” she said, “and information wasn’t what I needed. Emotional support was what I needed.”

Susan then joined the Wellness Community, a Bethesda nonprofit organization that offered non-clinical support to cancer patients and their caregivers in the Washington area. Now called Hope Connections for Cancer Support, the organization provides a variety of programs, including yoga, support groups and discussion sessions with visiting doctors and nutritionists.

“They had a different approach,” she said. “They just looked at me and said, ‘Wow, this is really new to you. You must be scared.’ And I really needed someone to say that to me.”

Because Hope Connections is entirely supported by donors, all its programs are free.

“Their door is truly open,” said Yohannes Gebreysus, 58, a D.C. resident who had pancreatic cancer diagnosed in 2007. “You can come anytime, and the more you come, the better you feel, knowing that someone is looking after you without a financial burden.”

Hope Connections is on the first floor of an office building near the Capital Beltway. The inside is outfitted like a cozy loft, with a kitchen, dining area and yoga studio. There are separate rooms for the support groups — one for patients, one for caregivers — as well as a kitchen island where nutrition experts perform cooking demonstrations.

“The people we serve spend so much time in hospitals and doctor’s offices,” said president and chief executive Paula Rothenberg, “so we wanted to create a home. That’s why it looks like this.”

Rothenberg, 58, who lives in Falls Church, got involved with Hope Connections in 2005 when she heard that Bernie and Bonnie Kogod wanted to form a cancer support community in the area. Rothenberg’s father had died from cancer the previous year.

Today, Hope Connections has more than 1,000 participants with 52 types of cancer. It concentrates on four core elements: support, education, social events and mind and body classes.

For Gebreysus, who lost 54 pounds after surgery, the path to healing was through yoga. At 108 pounds, he had difficulty standing, sitting and even breathing. Per a doctor’s recommendation, he began taking yoga and meditation classes at Hope Connections twice a week. Now, Gebreysus, who serves as the participant liaison on the organization’s board of directors, joins his Thursday support group for the half-mile walk to a sandwich shop down the street after meetings.

“I learned how to be more aware of myself,” he said. “Most of us are shy and vulnerable and don’t want any conflict with our doctors. But I learned how to open myself up so that I could be better informed.”

Susan said the community is like “being in college where you have friends that you can drop in on.” After a while, she persuaded her husband to tag along.

“Suddenly, I wasn’t his only emotional support,” she said. “He’s got his cancer buddies now and doesn’t depend on me as much as he used to.”

Establishing such close relationships with strangers takes time. That’s why the organization’s directors ask new participants to make a commitment of coming three times before deciding to stop. There is no limit on how long participants can use their services.

The staff members at Hope Connections strive to work in tandem with doctors and are not tied to a specific medical institution.

“We don’t allow doctor-bashing in our support groups,” Rothenberg said. “It’s a partnership. They do what we can’t, and we do what they can’t.”

The support groups are run by licensed therapists who work on contract with the organization. Although they do not work with children who have cancer, they welcome children of a parent with cancer.

The majority of participants are based in Maryland, 12 percent come from the District, and 7 percent come from Prince George’s County. Looking ahead, Rothenberg said, they are planning to open satellite campuses in both areas.

Hope Connections will celebrate its fifth year with a gala at the World Bank on Thursday evening. Rothenberg remembered her husband’s reaction when she established the organization.

“He said, ‘Jeez, isn’t that depressing?’ But the truth is that it’s inspiring,” she said. “Cancer changes everything. Suddenly, you don’t sweat the small stuff. Being surrounded by such resilient people gave me a whole new perspective on life. It even changed the way I get on the Beltway.”

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