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Cancer Connection: Giving Hope, Celebrating Life

By Geoff Kirsch

When it comes to cancer and Alaska, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news: for the past two decades now, cancer has been the state’s leading cause of death. The good news: in response to this, we’ve also seen an explosion of local cancer-related community groups working to connect, educate and inspire.

A shining example: Cancer Connection. Based in Juneau but serving the whole Southeast Alaska region, Cancer Connection is a grassroots non-profit organization designed to assist those living with cancer, their families and their support systems. It is guided by an all-volunteer board with part-time paid office help, with the support of a broad array of volunteers and partners.

“We’re working hard for our neighbors right where we live,” says Nicole Hallingstad, Southeast Alaska Cancer Connection president and lifelong Southeast Alaskan.

With a mission of bringing together health and wellness resources geared specifically for the people of this idiosyncratic region—Southeast Alaska certainly comes with its own set of geographical and cultural considerations—Cancer Connection focuses on empowerment by providing support, awareness, education and resources.

“Most importantly, we try to keep the conversation going,” says Hallingstad, herself a breast cancer survivor. “The first step in fighting cancer is being able to say the word ‘cancer’ without feeling like it’s taboo, or worse: a death sentence.”

For Southeast Alaskans, especially those in the smaller towns and villages, access to cancer treatment remains an issue, as can availability of diagnostic tools and screening (for instance, at least 1/3 of Alaska still has inadequate mammography technology).

In this area, Cancer Connection runs a travel reimbursement program, the Lynne Wunsch Memorial Travel Assistance fund, available to Southeast Alaska cancer survivors to cover up to $500 a year in cancer treatment-related travel costs.

“For so long, you couldn’t get radiation and chemotherapy treatment anywhere in Southeast, but now you can in Juneau, which is huge,” says Hallingstad, noting the United Way of Southeast Alaska’s Community Impact and SHARE grants as key contributors to the travel reimbursement program.

“Cancer Connection anticipates a huge uptick in demand for travel to Juneau from the outlying communities,” she says. “Even though it’s a whole lot closer to get here than to Seattle or Anchorage, it’s not necessarily much less expensive.”

For those who receive treatment and/or testing in Seattle, Cancer Connection also rents a furnished one-bedroom apartment—decorated and outfitted by volunteers and donations—between the Virginia Mason and Swedish Medical Centers. It then offers discount bookings for both long and short term stays—sometimes hundreds of dollars below market price—on a first come basis. In addition to United Way support, various other community sponsors including Valley Medical Care, First City Council on Cancer, Southeast Medical Clinic, Holland America Cruise Lines and Alaska Glacier Seafoods make possible this popular Cancer Connection program.

Beyond travel reimbursement and the Seattle apartment, Southeast Alaska Cancer Connection also serves as a clearinghouse for educational materials as well as a repository of information for other assistance (e.g counseling services, outside assistance programs, etc). It seeks to raise awareness through sponsored community cancer and wellness-related events, most visibly Cancer Connection’s annual Community Health Forum. Speakers typically include local and visiting doctors and health workers, and have dealt with topics such as diet and lifestyle, screening schedules, genetics and medical advances relating to cancer.

Held every October—the forum for 2015 will be Oct. 17, focusing on stress and featuring a keynote by Dr. Astrid Pujari—the Community Health Forum offers a free cancer-related public health seminar and lunch, completely free and open to the public. This year Cancer Conection with partner with Bartlett Regional Hospital to host the event.

“We used to host separate forums for men and women, but then we found the women would bring the men, so we combined them,” explains Hallingstad.

Of course, Southeast Alaska Cancer Connection also works with survivors, offering a support group as well as the “Let’s Talk Program,” which pairs newly diagnosed cancer patients with someone “who’s been there, done that.” And it hosts a yearly “Celebration of Life” to coincide with National Cancer Survivor's Day, which has historically been the first Sunday of June. In the past, the event took the form of a small walk, lunch and award presentation to the corporate partner, medical professional, volunteer and survivor of the year.

“This year we’re changing it up with a new date and approach,” says Hallingstad of the National Cancer Survivor’s Day 2015 Celebration of Life, slated for May 30, 4:30 pm – 7 pm at the JAHC.

“We’re combining the awards event with a fundraiser for Cancer Connection,” she says. “Instead of a walk with a lunch, it’s later afternoon with catered appetizers, a silent auction and even a no host bar. We’re still recognizing four outstanding honorees and we’re especially excited to welcome back Mike Miller, the founder of Cancer Connection. We’re just punching up the celebration part!”

Of Cancer Connection’s relationship to the United Way of Southeast Alaska, Hallingstad characterizes the United Way as tremendously helpful.

“Through contributions and grants, yes, but also in terms of outreach,” she says. “People know the United Way. They know what it stands for, its standards and its accountability.”

Cancer Connection is currently working under a five-year plan centered on awareness and reaching out to the Southeast Alaska population.

“We want to make our program as sustainable and robust as possible, while still maintaining our local nature,” Hallingstad says.

“It’s a big fight, but we’re making a real difference for people in our home communties .”

To learn more about United Way and its partner agencies, visit www.unitedwayseak.org. To learn more about Southeast Alaska Cancer Connection, visit www.cancerconnectionak.org.