When 33-year-old Jennifer O’Mahony was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer a year ago, it wasn’t so much a life interrupted. It was a life under siege.
Four years married and in the upswing of a hard-fought career in fashion design, the Oklahoma native and her husband, Ryan, had moved from the bustling Hollywood neighborhood to settle down in Pasadena. They planned to have a family soon, and a dog, maybe sooner. They were prudent, renting first, before plunging into the crazy real estate market. They priced homes in Altadena.
And then O’Mahony had a grand mal seizure one night while watching TV with Ryan by her side, and lost consciousness.
“It came out of nowhere … they took me to Huntington Hospital ER where they started running every test under the sun,” she recalled.
After initial shock, many exams, her mother’s arrival, second opinions, more disbelief, a biopsy, then came the diagnosis: a very rare brain cancer called Oligodendroglioma with two tumors in different areas.
Suddenly, O’Mahony said, everything turned upside down.
“When you’re in your 30s, talking about buying a house soon — suddenly that was ‘Nope,’ and we were looking at having kids soon, and that also was ‘Nope.’ We couldn’t do any of that.”
It was hard — really, indescribably, hard. But while beginning treatment, O’Mahony got a glimmer of good in her own neighborhood, just a mile or so away from her home. She reached out to Cancer Support Community-Pasadena, a nonprofit dedicated to providing social and emotional support to not just cancer patients, but also to families, friends and caregivers.
“CSCP has helped in a sense of getting compassion and understanding from people in my support group and the staff who have all been through something similar in their own journey. Sometimes, an ear or a hug is all you need,” O’Mahoney said. “If I didn’t find out about this place, I think I would feel a lot lonelier in my diagnosis and how to deal with it.”
It’s been nearly a year since using CSCP services — which are completely free — and O’Mahoney said the center has been a lifeline. Apart from offering a multitude of hobby, exercise and relaxation classes to decompress, CSCP recently began to offer new, specific support groups for target populations, such as for men and for a young adult support group for individuals diagnosed with cancer under the age of 35.
CSCP Executive Director Meg Symes said the nonprofit is constantly trying to offer more to its service area — the Greater San Gabriel Valley — and reach as many people affected by cancer as possible. Symes lives and breathes by CSCP’s mission statement: “So that no one faces cancer alone.” A cancer survivor herself, Symes also watched her mother go through cancer, someone she thinks, perhaps, would not have suffered as much emotionally had she a support network at the time.
“We want to expand our reach. We had to ask, ‘What are the needs? What can we do this year to add to our support services?’” said Symes, noting that the center also plans to expand in different languages, especially Spanish. “The people we serve are from all economic, all socio-cultural backgrounds. Cancer does not discriminate. This is not a place for people under a certain income level. People here come from all different walks of life — they just happen to have experienced cancer.”
Sitting down to help explain CSCP’s latest outreach, the engaged staff was eager to share its services, mission and passion. In 2016, the nonprofit moved to a new facility, located on the second floor of the Pasadena Humane Society’s building at the corner of Del Mar Boulevard and Raymond Avenue. The new home imparts the opposite of a hospital or medical facility. The inviting spaces are filled with comfy sofas and oversized chairs, decorated in bright, warm colors. Nearby, chatter and laughter filtered down the hallway from a large group gathered for a beading class.
With the help of 300 intrepid volunteers, many of whom are cancer survivors or have been touched by someone with cancer personally, CSCP offers more than 100 different workshops and stress management classes, including journaling, beading, painting and even baking. Last year, about 1,000 people walked through CSCP’s doors, using a total 14,500 service hours.
A team of licensed professionals are available for one-on-one therapy, family therapy or to facilitate support groups like the newer, young adult group.
Laura Wending, program director and group facilitator, and Rachel Koonse, program coordinator, gathered in one of the cozy meeting rooms to discuss the importance of target groups, such as the young adults’ group. About 77% of all cancers are diagnosed in people over the age of 55, Wending noted, pointing out that the young adult group is a very small population. Because of the rarity of their diagnosis, a young adult’s symptoms can also be easily overlooked, dismissed or misdiagnosed. Health advocacy is one of CSCP’s collective forces — the power of its participants and recommendations among its members.
“The young adult group was formed to meet a very special need of a very small population — they have unique needs that sometimes cannot be addressed as thoroughly in a larger group with different ages. They can feel incredibly isolated,” Koonse said.
Health advocacy has taught O’Mahony a great amount. She’s learning as much as she can about her form of cancer, attending seminars, reading and researching.
“There is so much information, you can easily get overwhelmed. … It has been super helpful to learn about legit websites, and not going down the evil Google rabbit hole [of medicines, alternative therapies, clinical trials].”
Wending, who switched careers to become a therapist after her husband passed away of cancer, knows from experience the needs of a younger person with the disease.
“It is such a small community, not everyone understands when you’ve had cancer at a young age,” added Wending. “When young adults are diagnosed, they go through a huge interruption of their development. There are issues of sexuality and fertility. It’s a difficult hurdle for them to address socially.”
Even losing hair for a young adult can be more traumatizing than for an older person. That’s one of the issues O’Mahony really needed to discuss when she first started at the group. She immediately connected with another young woman, who was also going through it for the first time.
“As a young woman, losing your hair is a really tough process. It’s such a part of your identity whether you want to admit it or not,” she said. “To have someone who is going through exactly what you’re going through at the same time you’re going through it is something really special.”
O’Mahony was also able to share in group her personal experience with fertility. After her initial diagnosis and before treatment (chemotherapy and radiation can often lead to sterility), she and her husband decided, after much debate and introspection, to do an intense “fast track” of fertility treatment over the course of a month to freeze her embryos. The treatment worked, and O’Mahony said she has great relief in knowing she has healthy embryos frozen and waiting for when she and Ryan are ready to have children.
The “cost of cancer” is another issue among young adults, as they might suffer financially more acutely than someone who has already worked for many years, saved money and already paid for some of life’s biggest expenses.
It’s called the “financial toxicity of cancer,” explained Koonse.
“If young adults have to stop school for treatment, or stop working in the midst of getting their career going, there are a lot of stresses and decisions … do they accrue more debt? Do they move back in with their parents? It’s carving out a new niche of what your identity is going to be moving forward,” Koonse said.
O’Mahony can attest to that. One of the hardest decisions to date was leaving behind her job as project manager at a clothing development start up, a job she loved and thrived at. But the long hours, in which she used to revel, became too tiring while undergoing treatment, and the commute was difficult to navigate between doctor appointments.
The financial strain of losing one income has been tough, she noted, but she also is optimistic of her future in the near term. While her form of cancer is rare (it makes up only about 5% of all adult primary brain tumors), the good news is her tumors are slow growing. They haven’t had any growth in 12 months.
O’Mahony is still her bubbly, wide-eyed self. She hopes to find work in Pasadena again soon, and meanwhile, enjoys her newly adopted dog, Bella, a cuddly and energetic companion that motivates her to get out and walk on some tiring days. Coincidentally, she adopted the dog from the Pasadena Humane Society, right downstairs from CSCP.
She also hopes to join more classes at CSCP later this year, perhaps dance and yoga, and maybe attempt meditation again.
For Symes, the executive director takes hope in the fact that their services are expanding. In the first quarter of 2018, CSCP’s number of members seeking support grew by 17% over the previous period. But she won’t rest until CSCP can serve even more, noting that there’s actually a lot of laughter within CSCP’s walls, not including the free comedy night (in English and Español), organized by professional comedians, to give families some much needed comic relief.
“You might think ‘Oh, everyone there has cancer, how depressing,’ but it’s not that at all. This is actually a very positive place to be in,” Symes said. “Everybody is engaged and doing something positive for themselves and getting out of their situation for a little while, supporting and enjoying each other. It’s a beautiful place.”
To learn more about Cancer Support Community Pasadena or its new services, visit its website at cscpasadena.org.