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Commiserating over tea

Event: American Cancer Society hosts a gathering of survivors to chat and share experiences

Posted: March 7, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 7, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Katie Werft, right, pours hot water for Irene Jansson during the Survivor’s Tea at the SCV Senior Center recently.

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They came for tea, laughs and understanding.

More than 60 cancer survivors attended the American Cancer Society Survivor’s Tea held recently at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center in Newhall, where volunteers from the SCV chapter of ACS transformed a classroom into an elegant dining room, complete with white linen tablecloths.

Guests dined on finger sandwiches, fruit and scones and enjoyed an assortment of hot and iced teas as they commiserated about their cancer experiences.

Jackie Reibsamen, of Valencia, has survived both cervical and colorectal cancer. She’s been in remission for 20 years.

“I think it’s good to have the camaraderie of other people who have had cancer, in whatever form,” she said.

Bea Mulligan, of Newhall, a thyroid cancer survivor and volunteer at the center, was surprised at the turnout.

“I didn’t realize we’d have such a large group,” she said.

According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results database for 2007, the most recent year for which proper estimates are available, more than 11.7 million Americans were living with cancer.

The same study concluded that 44 percent of male Americans will be at risk to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime; the number is one in three, or approximately 27 percent, for women.

After lunch, center health and wellness coordinator Diana Sevanian welcomed the attendees and introduced ACS representatives Tamika Payne and Candy Spahr to applause.

 Speaker and author Judith Harris took to the floor next. Harris, a psychotherapist and breast cancer survivor, was pragmatic and humorous about her experience.

“The longer you live, the more things happen. Once you become elderly, you survive damn near everything,” Harris said to laughter.

She works with a lot of cancer survivors in her practice and said the normal rules for living get thrown out during the recovery process.

“You have to change your old definition and find another way to judge yourself. Don’t feel bad about not living like you used to do,” she said.

One client told Harris that she felt guilty for not being able to complete her tasks as she usually did, while another felt grateful for even being able to do one load of wash.

 “When a patient says, ‘I wasn’t able to do anything today,’ I ask them, ‘Did you accomplish healing today?’”

Whether recovering from an illness or just trying to get through the everyday struggles of life, Harris had surprising advice for the audience.

“The key to happiness is lowered expectations,” she said. “All of us question whether we’re doing it right or not, as if there’s some instruction manual on life.”

Ways to increase happiness, Harris continued, include practicing an attitude of gratitude, scheduling joy in your life and accepting life the way it is, rather than how you think it should be.

“You have to resign as general manager of the universe,” she said. “You may think you have a better idea, but you don’t always get to say how it’s going to be done. It’s mostly just attitude.”

To illustrate the latter, Harris told a story about a woman who woke up one day to find she only had three hairs on her head. So she braided them. The next day, there were only two, so the woman parted them in the middle. On the third day, a single hair remained, so the woman put it in a ponytail.

When she woke up on the fourth day to find she was completely bald, the woman said to herself, “Oh, well at least I don’t have to do my hair today!”

With growing older, Harris said, comes a new wisdom.

“That’s what I love about the gift of aging. Now, when I make a fool of myself, I do so with enthusiasm,” Harris said. “The key is not to become a tragic hero in the human comedy.”

The event concluded with a brief speech by Nancy Coulter, the SCV ACS president, whose daughter Heather Warrick has been battling cancer for 17 years.

Coulter had high praise for the tea, thanking Harris and the people who made it happen.

“The American Cancer Society is 98 percent volunteers. The volunteers in Santa Clarita are so passionate and many of them are survivors,” she said.

According to Coulter, 135,000 people in California will receive a cancer diagnosis in 2011 and approximately 55,000 of those will die from the disease.

“Cancer strikes three out of four families. That’s a harsh reality,” she said. “To the survivors here today, thank you for coming. We are so proud of you and well. We’re excited when you keep having birthdays.”

For more information on the American Cancer Society Santa Clarita Valley Chapter, call (661) 298-0886 or visit www.cancer.org.

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