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Resources, services in county give women with breast cancer support when they need it most


North Bay women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have a wealth of resources available to access information about the latest diagnostic tests, traditional and complementary treatments, and opportunities for emotional support.

Regardless of insurance coverage and medical plans, women can readily get mammograms, arrange for treatment with a breast cancer medical team and find other services they will need as they grapple with their "new normal," a term Lydia Zipp of Petaluma uses to describe the reality that hits a woman who just received a cancer diagnosis.

Her organization, the Women's Cancer Awareness Group, has a goal of "raising awareness, one conversation at a time," and operates with the philosophy that "we consider everyone a survivor from date of diagnosis."

Zipp's group has compiled a free, comprehensive Resource Guide, specifically for North Bay women with all types of cancer, and the latest edition was revised earlier this year. The 34-page booklet lists resources that have been recommended by women who attended the programs described. It includes organizations that provide sliding-scale counseling, education, meal preparation, lymphedema resources, insurance assistance, nutrition information, and fitness centers offering free memberships for cancer patients.

In addition, the Resource Guide has information about drop-in support groups for caregivers, a support group for women without partners, a popular "What's Next" creativity group, and even a place for equine therapy.

Various organizations and health care providers offer educational speaker series, and on Wednesday, as part of its Education and Empowerment sessions, the Women's Cancer Awareness Group will feature Dr. Amy Shaw of Redwood Regional Medical Group. She will speak about "Chemo Brain," describing the phenomenon of chemotherapy's impact on mental function.

On Oct. 14, the Ceres Project will hold its second annual Cancer Journey conference at the Finley Center in Santa Rosa, and many speakers will be addressing topics of interest to men and women with cancer. The conference is designed for patients and their families, and Cynthia Wilcox-Rittgers, a cancer survivor and Petaluma-based psychologist who runs a cancer support group, said last year's conference offered outstanding education and support.

While she acknowledges that the North Bay offers considerable mental health and medical services for breast cancer patients, including an impressive array of alternative treatments, such as massage, acupuncture, qigong, meditation and yoga, Wilcox-Rittgers noted there is a dearth of financial services available in the area for patients who are unable to work because of their illness, and also a deficit of support and counseling opportunities for women with metastatic or incurable breast cancer.

Major medical providers in the area, such as Sutter North Bay, Kaiser Permanente, St. Joseph Health, and Redwood Regional Medical Group offer services to their patients, and women affiliated with community health centers also have a variety of resources available to them.

The Sutter Pacific Medical Foundation operates the Women's Health Resource Center on Steele Lane in Santa Rosa, offering diagnostic procedures and access to oncologists, breast surgeons and genetic counseling services.

It also has nurse navigators who can assist patients, free of charge, through their cancer journey. The center offers numerous cancer support groups, which are open to anyone in the community, not just Sutter patients, said Lizzie Elsey-Moore, a program assistant with its cancer support services. A recent grant made it possible for the center to add a Spanish-language breast cancer support group.

Sutter oversees the Institute for Health and Healing, which moved last year to an expanded location at the former Warrick Hospital on Summerfield Road in Santa Rosa. Volunteers provide services, by appointment on Saturdays, for integrative medical therapies, such acupuncture, Reiki, jin shin jyutsu, and massage. The program is supported by grants and donors and is available to recipients on a fee-for-service basis, said program assistant Lisa Jang.

Redwood Regional Medical Group in Santa Rosa has a team of specialists working at its breast care center, and they offer screening mammograms, sonograms, and breast MRIs. The services are open to any women, and they the group accepts all insurance plans, said Marlene Lennon, a nurse practitioner with a specialty as a breast cancer patient navigator. Lennon is available to answer questions from newly-diagnosed women and also receptive to inquiries from the public about breast cancer, regardless of whether the individuals are RRMG patients.

During the month of October, RRMG is offering two free mammogram clinics in conjunction with Vista Family Health Center for underserved women who don't have insurance coverage for mammograms. The practitioners will volunteer their services for the Oct. 6 and Oct. 17 clinics, said Lennon.

The medical group also has breast surgeons, a radiologist, and oncologists on staff to treat women with breast cancer. It runs a twice-a-month support group for women with breast cancer. Dr. Shaw offers a unique cancer survivorship program at RRMG to help women with myriad issues after they've had initial treatment for breast cancer.

St. Joseph Health operates Petaluma Valley Hospital and Memorial Hospital, and provides diagnostic imaging, surgery, reconstruction, and cancer treatments with a team of doctors, nurses, physical therapists and nutritionists. It also offers numerous support groups, including one for women newly diagnosed with cancer; a family, friends and caregiver support group; and a transition support group for men and women who have finished treatment.

Rose Cook, an advanced oncology clinical nurse at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa, informs patients of their cancer diagnosis, offers to meet with them to explain what to expect, and is available to answer questions throughout the treatment process. KP Santa Rosa has an average of 160 new breast cancer cases annually, she said.

Kaiser Permanente patients who are diagnosed with breast cancer have a comprehensive care team available to them that reviews each new case and assembles a pre-treatment plan. They will discuss with women their recommendations related to additional imaging, genetic evaluation, treatment options and possible surgical procedures.

Dr. Loie Sauer, a breast surgeon for Kaiser Santa Rosa, is on the board of the American Cancer Society, and when she meets with women, offers information about both women's and ACS resources, such as transportation, emotional support and details on classes related to stress reduction, exercise and nutrition.

The American Cancer Society can provide numerous resources about the latest medical research related to breast cancer and education about all aspects of breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and support.

(Janet Parmer is a Bay Area freelance writer. She can be reached at jhparmer@comcast.net.)