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GAME PLAN Coaches share the path to cancer survival

Football coaches, Lamaze coaches, life coaches -- sure, we know what those are. But coaches for cancer?

You could say that all the coaches from Buffalo's Cancer Wellness Center have definitely been to the game and back again. Now they strive to help others who find their worlds turned upside down by a bad biopsy.

Bill Grossman, 43, an attorney and father of two, is a six-year survivor of Hodgkin's Disease.

Barbara Bartle learned she had ovarian cancer just as comedian Gilda Radner died from it. She's now a 16-year survivor.

Bonnie L. Zimmerman, a former medical secretary who underwent breast cancer surgery in April, credits her upbeat attitude to a coach from the non-profit Cancer Wellness Center. Now she, too, has volunteered to be a coach.

Bartle, Grossman and Zimmerman are three of more than 85 cancer survivors who stand by to reach out and be matched with some of the 4,500 cancer patients diagnosed yearly in Western New York who might need them.

Cancer coaches can help make sense of what's happening after the doctor delivers the bad news that seems to signal the end of the world. They can provide moral support and sources of information, perhaps even accompany those they coach to treatment sessions.

"I wish I had known about the cancer coach program when I was going through my treatments," said Bartle, whose husband took extended periods of time off from his job to stay by her side during chemotherapy.

Coaches are living proof that there can be hope and happiness on the other side of the cancer battle.

"When people see that you -- the coach -- are healthy and vibrant, that means a lot," said Grossman.

Yet he remembers so well the day he learned he had cancer and how alone he felt, even though he had the loving support of friends and family all around him.

"Oh, my God, the world stops," Grossman recalls. "You think, 'What am I going to do? Am I going to die?' "

Prior to his diagnosis, Grossman had experienced a strange pain radiating down his arm. He ignored the discomfort, thinking it was due to a pinched nerve. But the feeling never went away. In fact, he noticed it got even worse whenever he drank a beer.

His wife finally prodded him to visit the doctor, and a simple chest X-ray revealed that he had a tumor growing inside his chest.

Driving home from the doctor's, Grossman remembers feeling tumors in his neck for the first time. For the next nine months, everyday things he had once taken for granted -- eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom -- were all affected by his cancer and his treatments.

Grossman says he emerged from the ordeal a better person. Now when he coaches a fellow cancer patient, he likes to share a favorite quote with them: "I am wounded, but not slain. Just let me lie here and bleed for awhile, and I will rise and fight again."

Hillary Ruchlin, executive director of the non-profit Cancer Wellness Center, says people have a natural tendency to shut down when they are told they have cancer.
They feel stunned and isolated. They don't necessarily want to talk to friends or family members, because they want to appear strong or to protect those who are close to them.

A trained cancer coach, Ruchlin says, can encourage people to participate in their treatment and take back control of their lives.

Sometimes, she said, people don't even know what they need until they are provided an opportunity to talk. A coach is there to listen.

It starts with a simple phone call, perhaps an invitation to meet for coffee. After that, the patient can use the coach as much or as little as needed.

Zimmerman already knew about the cancer coach program when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, because her husband is also a cancer survivor. She had casually picked up a flier from the Cancer Wellness Center during a visit to his doctor's office.

Then one morning during her shower, Zimmerman noticed an ominous lump and scheduled an appointment with her gynecologist, who scheduled a biopsy. While she was at work one day, a radiologist cold-called with the bad news, then matter-of-factly directed her to "call your breast surgeon."

Zimmerman was stunned.

Breast surgeon? She didn't know anyone to call. In the short time since her biopsy, Zimmerman's gynecologist had died in a freak accident. She certainly couldn't consult him.

Her cancer coach, an 8-year survivor of breast cancer, helped and encouraged her through some of the worst times. Now, Zimmerman says she just wants to give back and make the path smoother for other women facing breast cancer.

Bartle, who beat one of the deadliest cancers a woman can have, agrees with Zimmerman. "I figured if I did survive," she said, "I wanted to give hope to other people."

To find out more about the Cancer Coach Program, call 873-0905 or visit www.cancerwellnesscenter.org.

e-mail: iliguori@buffnews.com

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