On a recent afternoon at the Women’s Cancer Resource Center on Telegraph Avenue, Maria gets a tender embrace from Mary Tunison, the center’s executive director.
“There’s lots of hugs around here,” says Tunison. “Women know how to take care of women. It’s an intrinsic part of who we are and some of that is made manifest here.”
The atmosphere of emotional support is what makes the center a rarity—and why thousands of women a year come here for help. Maria, who has been a resident and community activist in North Oakland for the past 32 years, is visiting WCRC for the first time today, just two days after undergoing a mastectomy.
Maria (who preferred not to give her last name) walked here from her home—just eight blocks away—to learn more about the support groups the center offers. “I’m in denial,” she says. “There’s so much information. I’m really overwhelmed and scared.”
Like most women who use WCRC’s services, Maria says she heard about the center through a friend and wanted to find out what kind of support groups the center offers. “There’s the loss of control and the fear of death,” she says. “I’m getting used to crying.” Maria is accompanied by a long-time friend, Oakland city council member Jane Brunner.
“Everyone knows it’s a wonderful place,” says Brunner, who was also visiting the center for the first time that day. “People highly recommend it. People rave about it.”
It’s not difficult to see why. In its 17 years of existence, the center has offered free services to women with all types of cancer, and have specifically reached out to women who are more likely to be underserved in mainstream health system—women of color and lesbians.
The center houses a 3,000-volume library that carries texts on conventional and alternative treatments, cancer as it affects specific communities, and the environmental causes of cancer. WCRC offers eleven support groups, including those focused on lesbians, African Americans, Latinas and Chinese women. It also operates a peer referral network, which links up women with similar medical diagnoses and backgrounds, and runs a help line to provide callers with information on treatment options and referrals to physicians.
“A cancer diagnosis can be so incredibly isolating,” Tunison said. “No matter how much a spouse loves you, it’s just not the same. We link them up with someone who can help them walk the cancer walk. We provide them with someone who’s been there.”
The kind of in-depth care the center offers is a breath of fresh air for most people in the mainstream health care system. “The average HMO allows only seven minutes for an appointment with a doctor,” Tunison said. “How do you process that information? How do you begin to educate yourself?”
One program specifically helps Latinas with limited English skills by providing them with patient advocates to help them traverse the complex health care system. Another offers in-home support services to clients. The center also administers the East Bay Breast Cancer Emergency Fund, which provides financial assistance to low-income women with breast cancer who live in Alameda and Contra Costa County.
The other component to WCRC is its public policy focus, which centers around raising awareness about the environmental links to cancer. Its most recent campaign involves the Bay Area Working Group on the Precautionary Principle, a Bay Area collaborative formed to promote the use of less harmful substances by government entities.
Catherine Porter, an attorney who works as WCRC’s public policy coordinator, describes the precautionary principle as a “common sense approach” to decision-making related to the use of potentially hazardous materials. She cited as an example the rampant use of toxic pesticides, when simple cleaning with soap and water will often solve the problem of pests
WCRC is one of the organizations lobbying to get the Berkeley City Council to adopt a precautionary principle resolution. The council will decide on the issue at its Oct. 14 meeting. The next step, Porter says, is to get City Council to adopt an ordinance that specifically develops a preferable purchasing policy that will require the city to use safer substances in the city’s cleaning and janitorial products.
“There’s so little that we know about so many chemicals and many cancers seem to have environmental links” said Porter. “We can start being part of this cultural shift of saying ‘is there a less toxic way to deal with this?’”