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GILDA'S CLUB SUPPORTS THOSE AFFECTED BY CANCER

Living with cancer?

Come as you are.

That signature statement -- like the blazing red door that warms the entry to all 18 Gilda's Clubs across the country and Canada -- invites anyone touched by cancer to come in for a spell.

Literally.

When Gilda's Club Western New York this week opened its red doors at 1140 Delaware Ave., two-hour Scrabble sessions were among the many activities offered. And while the formal grand opening won't be until spring 2005, staff members will introduce new members to the unique experience called Gilda's Club.

"We don't do counseling here," explained Mary Beth Karr, executive director. "Everything is really about community and doing things in groups and supporting one another. As happens in other community environments, people will get to know one another and connect outside the activities of the club itself."

Gilda's Club is nonresidential and open without charge to anyone who has been touched by cancer. That includes men, women and children living with cancer -- as well as their family and friends. It also welcomes cancer survivors and those who have lost someone to cancer.

It is named in honor of Gilda Radner, the "Saturday Night Live" comedian who died in 1989 from ovarian cancer. When describing the emotional and social support she received during her illness, she called for such places to be made available everywhere.

"A lot of people, because of our name, think we are only for women and only for ovarian cancer," Karr noted.

Membership is free, and those seeking to join the club should call 332-5900. After signing up for a new-member meeting, an informational session will be set.

"We may have someone who is doing all right, but who now has to go back for another round of chemo," said Susan Lichtblau, program director. "They may have small children, a single parent who doesn't know how their household will be cared for. We call that Team Convene. We get their whole support network together and make a written plan on who will drive the kids to soccer, who will walk the dog. It's something that, in the past, churches and synagogues did.

Gilda's Club is housed in the former Conner's mansion, a four-story stone and marble beauty with 20 rooms. Since 2003, when demolition began on the building's interior, plans have called for three floors of rooms specifically designed for program activities. Standardized across the country, Gilda's Clubs are not medical settings. Designers have worked to make each space welcoming and warm.

A hallmark of all clubs is Noogieland, a children's space whose name is taken from one of Radner's bits on "Saturday Night Live." In Buffalo, it is located in the lower level and is open to children ages 3 and over who are living with cancer or whose parent or sibling is living with cancer.

Also on the lower level is the Teen Area, a designated space for teen-age activity that is becoming commonplace in clubs around the country. Here, youth ages 12 to 17 will meet for Teen Talk -- a six-week series of group meetings -- as well as pizza parties.

The Family Focus program enlists the entire family as a resource and helps family members learn together how to live with cancer.

"It's not psychotherapy or anything heavy duty, but just a way to have the family learn to talk about what is happening," Lichtblau said. "It provides an opportunity for the family as a whole to express their hopes and fears and to see themselves as experts in their family life."

And that perhaps is the theme of Gilda's Clubs, the premise that people who are living with cancer are experts. Hence the concept of wellness groups, weekly support groups facilitated by mental-health professionals.

And of course, the mansion that hosted some of Buffalo's great social gatherings will continue in that tradition. Already planned is a Thanksgiving Potluck Dinner from 6 to 8 p.m. Nov. 17, with the staff providing the main course and drinks. Members and their families are invited and encouraged to bring salad, a side dish or dessert.

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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