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Cancer Support Group: Forum for Fellowship

Cancer Support Group: Forum for Fellowship
RADIATION ONCOLOGIST Dr. Henry Cline talks to the Cancer Support Group at a recent meeting. Dr. Cline brings years of experience in radiology to the Cancer Center.
Cancer Support Group: Forum for Fellowship
RADIATION ONCOLOGIST Dr. Henry Cline talks to the Cancer Support Group at a recent meeting. Dr. Cline brings years of experience in radiology to the Cancer Center.

In a room filled with happy chatter, a group of people from different walks of life — but with so much in common — gathered one recent evening to enjoy one aother’s company and to share a meal. As cancer warriors and survivors, they are members of an exclusive fellowship, and because of the experiences they have in common, they are able to inspire and support one another like no one else can. And they do so during the monthly meetings of the Cancer Support Group sponsored by Memorial Health Meadows Hospital.

The mood was definitely upbeat as attendees who came from throughout the regional hospital’s service area settled in to hear a short, inspirational message, participate in an art project, and dig into a meal of spaghetti with all of the trimmings finished by a dessert of banana pudding. The atmosphere was reminiscent of a church supper or family reunion, with family and friends catching up on the latest happenings.

The support group, which has been meeting consistently — except during the health pandemic — for the past eight years, was founded by Samantha Walker, Director of Cancer Care for Meadows. Walker has been involved with cancer treatment in Vidalia since 2005.

“We have had as many as 20 attendees per month,” Walker said. Participants include patients currently in treatment at the Cancer Center, as well as those who are now cancer free. Often, members and friends of current and past patient cancer patients attend the meetings to lend support.

“I knew there was value in these meetings because people were committed to coming. They are developing good relationships. We know there is a need,” Walker said, noting that among her inspirations for investing in the program was a patient who called every month during the hiatus caused by the pandemic to ask when the group was getting back together. “We started up again in January and, since we have a theme each month, we did ‘New Year, New Journey’ for that first session after the pandemic. We made New Year’s commitments, and at the end of the year we will look back and see how we did,” Walker shared.

Walker said of the group’s purpose, “I want to achieve giving them (the participants) a place and a forum to fellowship, to be with other people who they can align with and relate to whether they are in the new diagnosis phase or treatment phase, or are recovered. It is very powerful to have someone sitting beside you who can say, ‘I came through that.’ When you see that organically happen (in these meetings), it is a beautiful thing.”

Those who take part in the fellowship come from all generations. Among them has been a young mother in her early 30s, as well as folks in their 70s and 80s. Cancer does not discriminate, so the people involved in the group come from every demographic, socio-economic background, race, and age, Walker pointed out.

The meetings occur every fourth Thursday of the month at 5:30 p.m., last about an hour and a half, and are loosely structured. Conversations are spontaneous and participants are not asked to discuss their illness or treatment, but they often build bridges with other attendees that lead to friendships and support far beyond the meetings.

“I always try to encourage patients to bring caregivers and/or family members because they need support, as well. We often underestimate the stress a diagnosis puts on families. Caregivers are unsung heroes,” Walker emphasized.

The patients who receive care in the Vidaliabased Cancer Center are prime candidates for the meetings, and as they receive treatment, the patients are offered the opportunity to join the group; but persons who have been treated for cancer anywhere, anytime are welcome to join the group.

“We try to determine what each individual needs,” Walker said of the emotional support she and her staff provide patients both during and after treatment. “My personal goal is to build a rapport with each individual. I will be there to support and guide, to be a resource and a friend. That’s what brings me joy.”

Walker’s Career Path

Walker started her nursing career in 1998 after graduating from the College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick. After working at the hospital in Brunswick, she moved to Vidalia in 1999 and worked at a hospice service, later joining the staff of Meadows Hospital.

Walker’s sister is a nurse who married a doctor, so venturing into nursing was not a big reach, but her path became more defined because of her family’s experiences with cancer treatment. When she was in elementary school, her mother was stricken with cancer and spent three months in the hospital receiving cobalt treatments. When she was 21, Samantha’s father was diagnosed with cancer, but when he was in remission, he launched a faith-based program at his church in Jacksonville that lent support to victims of cancer. It was a large outreach program that still exists.

Walker recalled that her father told her that health care professionals need to be more tuned into how a cancer diagnosis affects the patient emotionally. “That’s one thing I want you to always remember,” he said. “When someone has a cancer diagnosis, it is the first thing they think about in the morning when they get up and the last thing they think about before they go to bed at night.”

Walker said, “I have often pondered my father’s words as I have gone through my career, and that is the inspiration for what we do here — my why and my purpose. I did not always know what I was doing, but I felt like I was in the right place. It was set out for me before I realized it. I did not start my career wanting to be an oncology nurse. I went to school to become a labor and delivery nurse, but God had a plan for me.”

Walker joined Meadow’s cancer treatment program as a chemo nurse in 2005 when oncologist Dr. Nasser Janbay was at the helm. Prior to Dr. Janbay’s tenure, a medical group came to Vidalia once a week to offer the service. “We had a small practice with four chemo chairs, and we started seeing medical oncology patients and did eight chemo treatments the first month,” Walker said of her work with Dr. Janbay.

The practice moved to the Lucy Pierson building in 2008 and offered six chemo stations in two suites. In 2012 medical oncology moved to the new hospital, and in 2013, a radiation department opened. The chemotherapy and radiation services were consolidated in 2017, and by 2018, when the Tommy and Shirley Strickland Cancer Center debuted at 1 Meadows Parkway, in a separate facility adjacent to Meadows Hospital, 13 private chemotherapy stations were in place.

The Cancer Center offers the most comprehensive cancer care services in the region and brings leading cancer care specialists practicing the latest in clinical care and innovative treatments to Vidalia. A range of comprehensive services is available at the center, and since cancer can affect many aspects of a patient’s overall well-being, the Center strives to treat the entire patient, not just the cancer, using a patientcentered approach.

Walker’s career has spanned 25 years with roles including chemotherapy nurse, clinical supervisor, and patient navigator. As Director of Cancer Care, she supervises a team of 10 cancer care professionals, including a lead office assistant, pre-certification specialist, nurses, radiation therapists, PRN therapists, and a dosimetrist and physicist who work with the oncologist. “What happens behind the scenes is remarkable. The patient may not ever see some of the people who are critical to their treatment,” she said.

Dr. Henry Cline is the Center’s Radiation Oncologist and Medical Director. “He leads our team with his expert knowledge and years of dedication and experience in the radiation field. Dr. Cline was one of the founding physicians of the Radiation Department and has been here since it opened.”

Up until May 2022, when a new alliance with Low Country Cancer Care (LCCC) expanded services at the Cancer Center, Walker served as director of both medical oncology and chemotherapy services at Meadows. Now, Walker works closely with Dr. Sreekanth Reddy and his team in the partnership to ensure continuity in cancer care. “Dr. Reddy has been a wonderful addition to the Cancer Care Team, providing the absolutely best quality of care in such a compassionate manner. We are so happy to work with him and glad he chose Meadows and Vidalia to partner with,” Walker said.

As a leading community oncology and hematology practice, LCCC operates within the American Oncology Network, LLC (AON), a high-growth medical oncology provider with a focus on supporting the long-term viability of cancer treatment in community-based settings. With AON integration support and centralized ancillary services, LCCC provides Vidalia patients expanded access to advanced medical oncology continued from page

and hematology care. LCCC’s services at the Cancer Center include eight exam rooms and 13 chemotherapy chairs. The clinic offers infusion therapy, including chemotherapy and immunotherapy, an in-house laboratory performing all routine blood work on-site, an in-house specialty pharmacy, care management support, and financial counseling.

Walker said of the cancer care offered at Meadows, “What separates what we do from other health care settings is that we are so much about personal relationships. Patients are looking for hope and assurance. I get to feel like I am making a difference, and I know I have spent a majority of my day helping people have a better life,” Walker said. Cancer Support Group Members Share Experiences Margaret is among the regular attendees at the Cancer Support Group meetings. The Vidalia resident was diagnosed in 2016 with multiple myeloma (a type of cancer in which abnormal cells reproduce in bone marrow). “Cancer doesn’t have me, I have cancer,” she said with conviction.

Margaret has had stem cell replacement and is still in treatment, but she is determined to stay active. In spite of being in treatment herself, she volunteers at the Cancer Center, offering moral support to other patients. “I am doing much better, and this is the best medicine,” she said of the meetings and volunteering. Margaret said it is a blessing to be able to encourage someone else who is going through cancer treatment. “I feel grateful for the opportunity,” she acknowledged, noting that she relies heavily on her strong faith in God. “We are lost without hope. It means everything.”

Another regular attendee named Betty was diagnosed in 2011 with endometrial cancer. She was first treated in Savannah and underwent chemotherapy, and is now under the care of Dr. Ashlee Nicole Tillery, an obstetrician and gynecologist based in Vidalia. Betty is a quiet but a substantial presence in the sessions and lends strength to others in the group.

Shirley, who now lives in Hazlehurst, was living in Atlanta in 2003 when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer returned, and Shirley is in treatment now, but she is optimistic about her prognosis as a new medicine is administered. “I feel the best I have in years,” she said with her characteristically sunny attitude. She inspires others in the group to be positive just by being herself.

Diane, who is originally from Utah, moved to the South with her husband, whose family is from the area. After getting at job at Tumi, she moved to Vidalia. She was diagnosed in 2013 and is in remission, but she enjoys coming to the meetings.

Alton, who was raised in Cobbtown and is now living in Metter, was treated in Savannah for prostate cancer. After he recovered, he attended prostate cancer support meetings in Savannah, where he and other men who had been through the same treatment met to share experiences and support one another. It was just what Alton needed at the time, said his wife, Faye. Now, Alton and Faye drive to Vidalia from Metter to attend the meetings in Vidalia.

Joining the meeting for the first time in February were Hazlehurst couple William and Rhonda. William was diagnosed with throat cancer in August 2022 and underwent seven rounds of chemotherapy and 35 rounds of radiation. “It was rough but support from my wife, family and friends lifted me up. It was love and care that helped me to get through it. The treatment went well, and it was hard at times, but the staff here was excellent and very compassionate,” William observed.

William recalled that when he was first diagnosed, a gentleman from Claxton in his 80s who had just gone through the same treatment called him regularly. “He took the time to call and check on me. I said I wanted to do the same for others, so when a friend in Florida had the same cancer, I called every week and checked on him. He just finished his last treatment.”

William, who said he wants to share his story and help anyone he can, has returned to his work in the poultry business and recently started playing golf again. His first PET scan in January showed that he is now cancer free. “God has blessed me,” he shared. Cancer Support Group Information The Cancer Support Group sponsored by Memorial Health Meadows Hospital in Vidalia meets every fourth Thursday at 5:30 in the hospital’s private dining room. Dinner is provided and patients and their family members are encouraged to attend. For more information, call 912538-7777.

MEDICAL ONCOLOGIST Dr. Sreekath Reddy and his team are part of the partnership at the Cancer Center who work together to ensure continuity in cancer care.

HELPING OTHERS — Margaret is a beloved face at the Cancer Care Center. She is still in treatment for cancer, but she volunteers at the Center to help people like herself who are undergoing therapy. Above, Margaret shares a hug with Lori Durden, Lead Office Assistant and Volunteer.Photo by Deborah Clark

HAPPY FACES — Diane, left, and Shirley share a laugh or two during the Cancer Support Group meeting in February. The members of the group have a special bond since they have had similar experiences and offer friendship and encouragement to one another at the meetings and beyond.Photo by Deborah Clark

FAMILY SUPPORT— Faye and Alton drove all of the way from Metter to attend the February meeting of the Cancer Support Group. Alton, who was treated for prostate cancer, previously attended meetings in Savannah and derived comfort from talking with men who had the same diagnosis and treatment. He and his wife are looking forward to continuing a fellowship in Vidalia with others who have shared experiences.Photo by Deborah Clark

QUIET STRENGTH — Betty, who was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in 2011, is a cancer survivor who lends a quiet strength to the group. Above, she is shown with Samantha Walker, standing, at the February meeting.Photo by Deborah Clark

ART PROJECT — William and Rhonda, from Hazlehurst, attended the Cancer Support Group meeting in Vidalia in February. Above, they work on an art project which was part of the evening’s entertainment. William was treated for cancer of the throat and said family, friends, and faith helped him to get through a tough time. He now wants to be of assistance to others who are having the same experience.Photo by Deborah Clark

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