One Big, Open Door: Gilda’s Club wraps arms around cancer patients and family members

When Aurora Wadle was diagnosed with kidney cancer at the age of 15 months in November 2014, her mom and dad looked for a support group where they could talk to other parents going through similar harrowing circumstances.

They found it — at Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit in Royal Oak.

Part of the global Cancer Support Community network, Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit in 2018 marked 25 years of providing cancer support for the whole family. Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit supports 1,900 unique members and 12,000 visits per year. Those who utilize the services are referred to as “members” — not “clients,” because comedian and organization namesake Gilda Radner once said that getting cancer gave her membership to an elite club she would have preferred not to join. A member of the original Saturday Night Live cast, Radner was born in Detroit and attended University Liggett School before going on to the University of Michigan.

The star was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1985 and passed away in 1989. After her death, her husband and friends started Gilda’s Club as a way for her legacy to live on. Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit was formed by eight women, each touched by cancer in some way, in 1993.

Supporting the Family

In the Wadle family’s case, Gilda’s Club meant parents Stephen and Kelly Wadle were able to attend meetings with other parents to compare notes on diagnosis, treatment plans, life after cancer and other aspects of having a child battling cancer.

“It was probably one of the most impactful things to be able to go and sit with these other parents and talk about what our family was going through,” Kelly Wadle says.

At the same time, Aurora, her twin brother Parker and older sister Belle went along and participated in separate activities including crafts.

“It was a place where kids could go and put the cancer behind them and just be kids,” Kelly says.

The assistance that members receive through Gilda’s Club encompasses multiple aspects of going through treatment and healing beyond traditional medical care — for patients as well as their support systems.

“Gilda’s Club is kind of the ‘What now?’ after diagnosis,” says Laura Varon Brown, executive director and CEO of Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit. “We’re a component of care to traditional medical care. We truly believe that a healthy family makes a healthy patient.

“A big part of our program is education and wellness.”

Beyond parent-focused and a variety of other support groups led by mental health professionals and the kids’ activities the Wadle children experienced, offerings can include yoga, tai chi and meditation classes; workshops on healthy eating; lectures on subjects such as the benefits of art therapy and navigating health insurance; and a bereavement program designed to support anyone experiencing the loss of a loved one to cancer. Most of the programming is offered at Gilda’s “clubhouse,” a beautiful old Victorian home in Royal Oak that offers a comfortable, cozy environment.

Focusing on Kids

A number of programs are designed specifically for children and teenagers, who have different needs and challenges than adults when it comes to coping with a cancer diagnosis in the family. Support groups provide a safe environment for kids to share their feelings as well as offer age-appropriate cancer information, relaxation and coping skills and creative play.

Workshops and events like kids’ yoga, art classes, family fun days and Camp Sparkle, a five-week summer camp, are also offered. Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit even introduced a wintertime day camp for kids, Camp Snowflake, for the first time last year.

“Kids can feel isolated and confused by a cancer diagnosis in the family, so it’s important to be around other families that have been turned upside down by cancer,” says Varon Brown. Her own husband was diagnosed with cancer at age 40, and she wishes she had known about such services for her young children at the time. She also lost her mom to cancer at age 20, so she understands firsthand how much families can benefit by having access to these support services.

All Gilda’s programs are free to those touched by cancer in some way. The first step is to have a new member meeting to identify the services that will best meet their needs.

“We believe in truly taking away the barrier to care,” Varon Brown says. “When they come back, they come back to a big, open door.”

And that door is widening. While off-site programming is already available through Gilda’s Beaumont Hospital partners, further expanding its footprint and reach is a key part of the organization’s strategic plan. The group succeeded in paying off the half-million-dollar mortgage on its Royal Oak clubhouse in 2018. Now it hopes to expand in 2019 with a second clubhouse in the city of Detroit and, later, a third in Macomb County.

Umbrella of Services

While the focus of Gilda’s Club is the psychosocial support that people affected by cancer so desperately need, it has formed a variety of partnerships to ensure that members receive the full scope of cancer support services.

“If there is a service we don’t provide, we partner with other organizations to make sure we provide an umbrella of care,” Varon Brown says. “We don’t isolate ourselves from other nonprofits. We believe that together we can provide better care.”

Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit also has relationships with every hospital in the region. That’s in addition to weekly off-site services at Beaumont hospitals in Farmington Hills and Dearborn with programs like art therapy. The organization also partners with nonprofits such as the Angel Pillow Project, which encourages healing and comfort after breast cancer surgery.

“When you’re diagnosed with cancer, it has been shown that if you can be confident in your care and confident in your path of treatment, there are much better outcomes,” Varon Brown says.

“What we do is strengthen that confidence.”

Kelly Wadle can attest to that. Three-and-a-half years post diagnosis, Aurora is doing well, with no signs of the disease. Still, the family feels closely tied to Gilda’s Club.

“To this day, they (the kids) still enjoy going,” Kelly says.

While the parents’ support group hasn’t needed to be as active, Kelly says she stands ready to get involved again at any time.

“Even though my child is out of treatment, I would go back to be supportive to any family that has a child going through it,” she says. “They (Gilda’s) still open the doors to us should we need anything.

“We were just there for their holiday party. They’ve really become like a second family to us.”

Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit is at 3517 S. Rochester Rd. in Royal Oak. Call 248.577.0800, or visit gildasclubdetroit.org.