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The heart of cancer support

The weSPARK center offers emotional support for those whose lives have been touched by cancer.

Posted: April 13, 2008 1:11 a.m.
Updated: June 13, 2008 5:03 a.m.
 
Though it's quietly tucked away in a tiny space in an unassuming Centre Pointe business park, the weSPARK Cancer Support Center's impact on those whose lives have been touched by the disease far outweighs its modest appearance.

WeSPARK, which stands for "we Support Prevention, Acceptance, Recovery and Knowledge," was originally founded in Sherman Oaks in 2001 by the late actress Wendie Jo Sperber. Sperber, who appeared in "Bosom Buddies" and "Back to the Future," started the group after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997 and could not find any emotional support groups near her San Fernando Valley home.

The opening of weSPARK's Santa Clarita location in 2006 brought the same vital service to another previously under-served area.

Coordinator Tara Shore said that the center filled a void that was felt by many who were going through or recovering from cancer treatment.

"We opened this place up here to fill a need," she said. "Some people, especially those who were actively going through treatment, just didn't have the energy to drive over the hill to the valley for a one-hour support group or yoga class."

She added that weSPARK offers a comfortable, homey environment where people can feel safe and relaxed, in contrast to other types of programs.

"There were other support groups around here, but they were more hospital-based," Shore said. "Some people don't want to do that, especially after their treatment is over, because the last place they want to go is back to a clinical hospital setting."

The center offers an array of emotional support groups aimed at people in different phases of treatment and diagnosis, as well as groups for caregivers of cancer patients, children and those who have lost a family member. Having the chance to talk about things with people in a similar situation is crucial, Shore said, because friends and family don't always have the ability to understand or deal with the stress of cancer.

The inpatient group focuses on those who are undergoing surgery, chemotherapy or radiation, while the post-treatment group caters to those whose active treatment is finished but who still have to deal with the very real feelings and changes they may be experiencing on an ongoing basis.

"Once you are done with your treatment and the doctor says, 'OK, come back in three months for another scan,' many wonder, 'How do I know that they got it all?'" Shore said. "How do I live now that I've thought about dying? How do I want to live my life? Do I like the relationship I'm in? Do I like my job, am I happy with my friends?

There are a lot of emotional issues that come up."

In addition to support groups, the center offers a number of classes and workshops aimed at wellness and stress reduction, which are crucial to maintaining both a strong body and mind for those struggling with cancer.

"We offers services that aren't the norm," Shore said. "Things we know we are supposed to do when we have cancer, like exercise and stress management, things that improve your immune system."

Weekly classes include yoga, guided imagery and creative writing, and monthly workshops cover topics such as acupressure, biofeedback, the power of play and nutrition.

"It has had a huge impact on guests," Shore said. "It's their lifeline. It's how they find their way back to new normal after a cancer diagnosis. Often people are afraid to come at first, but the hardest part is making the first phone call. Once they get here they are thrilled. The people who come here are fighters who want to have a good quality of life, and are coming to do everything they can to heal themselves."

Mary Rehard, a Santa Clarita resident, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2006 and was extremely grateful to have found weSPARK not long after.

"I call it 'my sanity,'" she said. "I have nothing but good things to say about them."

Rehard, who suffered from chronic fatigue and severe stress after her diagnosis, would sleep for days on end. Though she will never be "cured" of her cancer, going to weSPARK weekly for the last 18 months has brought her back to life in many ways.

"At the support group I realized all the feelings I had didn't make me crazy, and that I wasn't the only one," she said. "I looked across the room and saw heads nodding when I would speak."

She also does yoga twice a week to re-strengthen her body, and attends the guided imagery class and the power of play workshop to reduce stress.

"All these classes are just another tool in the tool kit," she said.

"Like friends, you can never have enough ways of coping with stress and anxiety. WeSPARK helped me get my energy back. I Iearned how to get back on the horse and start living again."

Shore and weSPARK's new executive director Lori Litel hope to eventually grow the center and possibly open more satellite locations as word gets out, and the number of attendees grows.

"It's a lifeline for people," Shore said. "We know where people are in their journey and we put them together, to help them heal."

WeSPARK Cancer Support Center is located at 26370 Diamond Place, Suite 507. To contact weSPARK, call (661) 288-2322 or visit www.wespark.org.

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