Cancer patients, survivors, and their families in the Tri-Cities area no longer have to walk alone. Step inside Geneva’s inspiring home for healing and hope.
Joanne Hansen knows cancer all too well. Her father lost his battle with the disease, and 30 years ago, Hansen received her own diagnosis. Fortunately, surgery eliminated her cancer, but the experience left her shaken.
“I was lucky not to have chemotherapy or radiation, but it was still a lonely journey,” she says. “At the time, there was no support system for me or my family.”
When the Batavia resident learned about The Wellness House in Hinsdale, which offers free support to cancer survivors and their loved ones, she was inspired. “I knew we needed to do something like that in our community,” she says. “I felt so fortunate to have found my cancer early. I wanted to do something to pay it forward.”
The result is LivingWell Cancer Resource Center, 442 Williamsburg Ave. in Geneva, a community-based, nonprofit organization that offers psychosocial support services, education, wellness activities and information to cancer patients, caregivers and their families, at no cost. The center celebrates its 10th anniversary this coming year.
Hansen, a founding board member, spearheaded an effort to raise $1.2 million to launch LivingWell. In addition, she recruited three community members – Terry Murphy, Susan Lyons and Fred Dornback. “It was the perfect storm,” Hansen says. “The right people stepped forward and continue to step forward.”
Nancy Vance joined the organization nine years ago, as director of development, and then became the executive director six months later. She’s spent most of her career working for nonprofits, including the American Cancer Society.
“There was nothing like it in Kane County or the surrounding communities that could provide care for patients and loved ones,” Vance says. “Every day, someone who has just been diagnosed walks in our front door. I know it sounds cliche, but it starts with hope. Our staff walks beside them. We’re cheering them on, and we’re praying for them. We’ve had people who say that when they walk into our building, it feels like they’re getting a hug. That’s a credit to our caring team, who’s committed to the mission.”
LivingWell started out in a 5,000 square-foot building on Illinois Route 38. It didn’t take long, however, before the center outgrew its space. “Many times, a counselor needed to use my office because all of our rooms were being occupied,” says Vance. “We needed to build a purposeful space.”
In 2011, LivingWell built a new, 16,500 square-foot center that was designed for the needs of patients and staff alike.
“We had grief counseling taking place where participants were sad and tearful and needed some solace,” says Vance. “At the same time, we had pediatric cancer patients who needed a break from cancer, so they played games and other activities that normalized their childhood. We needed a place that gave us enough room and yet wasn’t intimidating.”
The center is located in a prairie-style building that’s separated into different areas for specific programming, and is large enough to hold a growing list of clients. The building is bright and roomy, thanks to skylights and large windows. Among its most popular features is a pair of outdoor gardens, one with a Koi pond and another with two waterfalls for personal reflection.
“The last place people want to go for supportive care is the same place where they go for treatments such as infusion and radiation,” Vance says. “While medical centers are beautiful and patient-centered, we wanted to create a place that felt like a home, and what I call a ‘soft place’ for patients and their loved ones to land. We really tried to create a place that surrounds them with hope, laughter, education and support.”
Three years ago, the LivingWell nonprofit group merged with Cadence Health System, and more recently, with Northwestern Medicine. The center receives human resources, financial, legal, marketing and information technology support from Northwestern Medicine, while still maintaining working relationships with 15 other health care systems. Patients are referred to LivingWell by oncologists and hospitals within the area.
“The partnership has been wonderful for us,” Vance says. “The health systems have been incredibly supportive, and we still maintain our independence.”
Since opening, the center has experienced double-digit growth every year. Last year alone it grew 33 percent. LivingWell averages 17,000 visitors a year and about 350 guests a week. More than 2,800 new participants took part in programs last year. Most come from Kane and DuPage counties, as well as McHenry, DeKalb, Will, Cook and LaSalle counties. More than 81 percent of participants are in active treatment. “That sets us apart from our peers,” says Vance. “Most centers see patients after treatment.”
Each patient’s care plan is devised through Connect To Care, a LivingWell program that places a licensed mental health professional in 12 cancer treatment centers and hospitals in a six-county service area. The counselors administer assessments to newly diagnosed cancer patients, which helps to identify individual needs.
“Each plan is different,” says Vance. “Some patients might need help with transportation or benefits or navigating insurance issues. Maybe they simply need help telling their children about their diagnosis.”
The center offers more than 70 weekly programs for adults, children and families that include nutrition, education, exercise and counseling components. Stress-reduction programs include massage, reflexology, facials and Reiki energy healing; fitness classes range from yoga and dance to light cardio and strength training. There are also a variety of general and cancer-specific support groups for survivors, caregivers and loved ones.
Feedback from referring oncologists has been overwhelmingly positive. “The physicians are getting fewer after-hours distress calls, and patients are more compliant, because we’re managing their anxiety and stress levels,” says Vance. LivingWell will soon begin a $700,000 research project to study the impact of its programs on cancer patients and their recovery.
“Cancer can be a lonely journey,” Hansen says. “The family goes through it with you, but in a different way. LivingWell provides education and support for people who share similar experiences. There are many aspects of cancer that people don’t know about until they are on this journey. The more educated survivors are, the less frightening it can be.”
LivingWell has a 15-person staff that includes professionally licensed social workers, counselors, wellness coordinators and administrative staff, along with more than 150 volunteers and 18 board members. A professional advisory committee includes world-renowned oncologists from Loyola, Northwestern, Rush and Cadence health systems who oversee all programs.
The center depends on financial support from individuals, corporations, grants and community foundations. It also hosts two major fundraisers each year that raise $650,000. An invite-only Winter Wine Festival is held in February in a private home. In May, a 5K walk along the Fox River draws thousands.
“Due to tremendous growth, and the fact that cancer patients tend to limit their travel to no more than about 30 minutes while in active cancer treatment, we realize that in order to meet the tremendous growth, expansion plans will need to be considered,” she says.
While LivingWell can’t change the number of people diagnosed with cancer, it can provide comfort and support for those traveling along a path filled with uncertainty.
“It’s very moving to see how people thrive in this environment, even though they’re going through a difficult time,” Hansen says. “I know we’re doing good things for those who need it the most.”