Free classes ranging from zumba to knitting to writing are available in Fairfax County for adults, teens and young children who are cancer survivors, patients, family members, siblings or caregivers.
Play the drums (instruments provided), practice yoga and learn about the effects of chemotherapy, or improve your cooking, art and beauty skills. Dance while you’re at it.
If you like or want to know more about meditation, “guided imagery,” and tips to beat insomnia, those are available, too, and perhaps your spouse or your caregiver could use a dose of professional help.
Family and bereavement sessions, programs in Spanish and lots of exercise are also hosted.
These are a few of the subjects which fill the daily, weekly, and monthly calendars at Life with Cancer centers at Inova hospitals.
One does not have to be a past or current patient at Inova or a resident of the county to attend, said Catherine Intartaglia, the center’s community affairs and volunteer coordinator.
“It doesn’t matter where they live or when they receive treatment,” she said.
Individual counseling, nursing consultations and group sessions are available, too.
“People share experiences, and it normalizes their situation so they feel less stressed,” said Drucilla Brethwaite, the manager of the Life with Cancer Family Center at Inova Hospital in Fairfax where it all began in 1987.
There Nando Di Filippo visited his cancer-stricken wife in the hospital while he tried to raise their two young children.
While comforting his wife and dealing with his own financial and emotional trauma, the dad was also trying to help his children cope with the terrible reality of their mother’s imminent death.
He was alone without anyone or place to turn to.
Di Filippo searched the county for resources and guidelines to help him deal with the life tragedy and found none.
To reduce the pain and suffering of future families facing similar circumstances, Di Filippo “planted seed money” to get things started, and almost 30 years later, more than 28,000 persons affected by cancer enroll every year at Life with Cancer.
Intartaglia has been with the program 19 years and has seen it grow from six employees to 36.
How is all this offered at no cost to patients and their families?
“We don’t want finances to get in the way of treating people,” Intartaglia said. Private funding and philanthropy supply 80 percent of the $2.3 million annual cost, and Inova Health System kicks in the remaining 20 percent, she said.
Life with Cancer is staffed by more than 100 volunteers and professionals whose mission is to enhance the quality of life of those affected by cancer “by providing education, information and support.”
Between 50 and 60 monthly classes are offered days and nights. And more are now available on weekends to accommodate increasingly younger cancer patients, their families, their lives and work styles, said Jenn Farrow, an oncology nurse and manager of the Fair Oaks Life with Cancer Center.
Cancer demographics are “vastly changing,” she said. According to National Cancer Institute, an estimated 15,780 children and adolescents ages 0 – 19 were diagnosed with cancer in 2014.
Tops on the popularity list of choices of classes at Fair Oaks are a variety of yoga sessions and a “super popular” boot camp cardio created for younger patients who want to “maintain their lifestyles.”
Another popular class which has a waiting list is Compassion Cultivation, developed and taught by a doctor with a specialty in psycho-oncology.
Farrow said Life with Cancer strives “to address the needs of the whole person since cancer affects mental, spiritual, and emotional wellbeing, as well as the physical,” which goes for the caregiver, too.
Life with Cancer’s Nurse Educators offer individual and family consultations to deliver information about specific cancers, and step-by-step guidance through individualized treatment plans providing information on how to best manage side-effects and how to get the most from your healthcare team.
Licensed Clinical Social workers facilitate support groups, individual and family counseling, and consultation for assistance in times of crisis, in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Life with Cancer also offers complementary therapies, community presentations, and other resources to understand and cope with cancer.
“We want to reduce anxiety” since the disease and treating it can cause cancer patients and survivors to “neglect other parts of life which need attention.”
And when the whole is considered, “people tend to heal better,” Farrow said.
At one “of the most challenging times of their lives, we offer free support and information,” Brethwaite said.
Anchored by the 16,000 square-foot Family Center at 8411 Pennell St., Fairfax, programs are conducted in eight locations, from Leesburg to Falls Church to Arlington to Alexandria.
For more information, call 703-206-5433 or go to lifewithcancer.org.