PRESQUE ISLE — For Kathy Swanson, the diagnosis came just after Christmas.
Twinkling lights were still dangling from fir trees and front porches. Carols continued to play on the radio. It was still the season of hope, yet she was hearing the words “cancer — stage 3.”
At that moment, all of the joy and beauty of that time fell by the wayside.
“I was frozen,” the Mapleton resident recalled during a recent interview. “I didn’t know what to do next. I really can’t even describe it.”
But Swanson, her husband and 13-year-old son prepared themselves for her treatments. And like many other families, they had very little cash to spare.
“It was right after Christmas, and we were depleted,” she recalled. “We were living paycheck to paycheck anyway, and then we learned that I needed to go to Portland for treatment and surgery.”
It was amid the fear and confusion that representatives from Caring Area Neighbors for Cancer Education and Recovery, or C-A-N-C-E-R, stepped in. The nonprofit organization was founded approximately a decade ago to support community members diagnosed with cancer. The organization is completely run by volunteers, and 100 percent of the money raised goes to help cancer patients and their families. Grants and donations help pay for supplies. No one receives a salary.
A short time after her diagnosis, Swanson experienced the impact of the group firsthand. A volunteer delivered a bag to her home that was full of toiletries, reading materials and other goods collected by students from the Mapleton Elementary School in Mapleton. Each bag also included artwork created by a student.
“That bag was perfect,” Swanson said. “It had everything that I needed to take with me to the hospital or to a doctor’s appointment. It was one less thing to think about.”
Susan Black, a Castle Hill resident, said that Swanson’s appreciation is music to her ears and those of the organization’s volunteers. Black co-founded C-A-N-C-E-R with her friend Mary McBride in order to provide Aroostook County cancer patients with support they can’t get through other agencies.
“Medical care is expensive, especially if you live in a rural area,” Black said. “A lot of times, people have to travel to Bangor or Portland or Boston, and that gets expensive when you factor in the price of gas, food and hotel rooms and time off from work.”
Along with travel and lodging expenses, the nonprofit also has covered oil, electricity and prescription costs for patients until they can secure some type of insurance or other payment mechanism. Black said that if there is something that the organization cannot do, they point the person in the direction of an entity that can.
Swanson said C-A-N-C-E-R, which has many volunteers who are survivors of the disease, helped her family with travel and lodging expenses and other medical costs. Because of federal laws governing confidentiality and privacy rights, the group cannot contact patients first, but they respond when they are called upon.
“When I got home from Portland, I received countless phone calls from volunteers who had been in my shoes,” she recalled. “I was frightened. We had about $8 in our pockets. They helped ease my fears.”
It is not just the financial and emotional support that Swanson found comforting. Solace also came in the form of fresh bread.
Louise Calabrese, chairwoman of C-A-N-C-E-R, said patients and their families love receiving the monthly Bread Of Life bags. Volunteers spend hours each month baking homemade bread and other baked goods that are put into bags and delivered to patients. Volunteer drivers often travel significant distances but receive no reimbursement for mileage.
“A lot of love and support goes into those bags,” she said. “It seems like such a simple thing to do, but we hear so often how much it is appreciated.”
“I would take my bag and one of those home-baked goods to my treatment,” she said. “And then to come home and find a fresh loaf of bread on the table — it really meant a lot.”
For the past six years, the organization has benefited from a massive fundraiser at the University of Maine at Presque Isle called Planet Head Day. During the event, which is also used by the staff of UMPI’s Northern Maine Museum of Science to celebrate space science,
participants don theatrical bald caps or have their hair shaved off and their heads painted to look like planets, moons, asteroids and comets. Some people have raised thousands of dollars by offering to have their head shaved if co-workers can raise a certain amount of money. Others simply raise money and pay for the privilege of being a “planet head.”
This event It has become the organization’s most significant fundraiser. This year’s event will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, in UMPI’s Wieden Gymnasium. Last year’s event raised more than $15,000.
Black said that the organization supports people mainly in central Aroostook, but they would love to expand to other parts of The County. To do that, however, takes a significant volunteer base.
“It is hard for people to find the time that it takes to do all that we do, but we would love if people could help us do more of it.” she said. “Once people get started, they realize how rewarding it is.”
For more about C-A-N-C-E-R, visit the website at www.c-a-n-c-e-r.com. To contact them, call 764-6826 or email info@C-A-N-C-E-R.com. For those who cannot attend Planet Head Day but would like to donate, send donations to the group at C-A-N-C-E-R, P.O. Box 811, Presque Isle 04769.