October 23, 2021

The first step

Katie Keyser/Living and Leisure Editor

Dottie Kelly of Cortland said her breast cancer diagnosis shook her world.

Life came to a screeching halt the day Dottie Kelly was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Everything was a blur,” said Kelly, 76, of Cortland, a retired special education teacher at Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

“The doctor said I was lucky and unlucky. Lucky that it was a young woman’s cancer and I am healthy. And unlucky that it was a young woman’s cancer, which means it was aggressive,” she said.

She was diagnosed in July 2015 with stage one cancer, called HER2 positive. Her treatment over the next year consisted of a lumpectomy, “brutal” chemotherapy and radiation.

“I had a really tough time with chemotherapy and radiation,” she said.

She found out about the Cancer Resources Center of the Finger Lakes in Ithaca.

“They are just a wonderful agency,” Kelly said. “An amazing thing to find when there is nothing out there for you and you are scared and overwhelmed. You don’t know which way to turn.”

The non-profit offers free support services to cancer patients Tompkins County and all its adjacent counties.

“The first thing we do is listen, primarily to what they are experiencing, what they have heard. We communicate and listen,” said Fran Spadafora Manzella, associate director of the center, at 612 W. State St., Ithaca.

“Then we may help them understand more about their cancer by giving them information, in ways they can understand. They may be wondering about a second opinion. We can give them information on that,” Spadafora Manzella said.

Katie Keyser/Living and Leisure Editor

Cathy Caputo of Cortland is a client services assistant at the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes.

“They are overwhelmed,” Caputo said of new cancer patients. “They don’t know what their first step is. It’s dealing with the emotional piece first. And along with informa on, we have a library, books, CDs, mostly books.”

The center’s website at www.crcfl.net has many resources, with links to the National Intitute of Health, Memorial Sloan Kettering and more.

“We don’t want to overwhelm,” Spadafora Manzella said. “A lot of oncologists say stay away from the internet. Everyone is different. Some people want a lot of information. Others do not.”

There is one-on-one support and a variety of support groups, 12 to be exact, including a popular men’s breakfast club that meets weekly at a restaurant.

It offers free wigs and hats, free medical and nutritional supplies, out-of-town travel services and local travel help.

“Our mission is to support people affected by cancer and our motto is, ‘No one should face cancer alone,’” Caputo said.

It is funded by donations and fundraisers, like a recent walkathon, that raises a third of its budget. It has seven staff and a slew of volunteers.

The agency had 3,900 contacts with the public in 2018, said Spadafora Manzella. But the number is an estimate.

“It’s hard to count individual clients. Not all of them end up in our database,” she said. “Some people we may never meet. We talk to them on the phone. Others participate in support groups.”

She estimated 183 contacts from communities outside of Ithaca in 2018. The resource center wants people in the Cortland area to access what it has to offer.

Kelly said she wished she knew of the center when first diagnosed.

“The people are very kind, very helpful,” she said. “They will go with people to the doctor and hospital appointments. If you need any kind of advice about where to go, they have all kinds. They won’t recommend specifics but they will tell you what they can about experiences of people that go to the center.”

Katie Keyser/Living and Leisure Editor

Wigs are free to women undergoing cancer treatment at the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes in Ithaca.

Kelly was struck by one woman who helped her get a wig.

“This is what I want,” she told the lady, listing color, cut, style. “The next week I show up and she has this wig in a bag. She pulls it out. She shakes it. ‘How about this?’”

“It was exactly what I wanted. It was so nice. I got so many comments on my hair. More than my (real) hair,” Kelly said. “It was so easy. You whack it on your head and off you go.”

Now that she had her own hair back, she won’t cut it, ever.

Kelly joined the women’s Friday group.

“A lot of women at the Friday group take oral medicine between five and 10 years. That’s for different kinds of cancer. Mine didn’t require oral medicine. When it was done, it was done.”

And many women she knows with the support group have not had an active diagnosis or treatment for eight to 15 years or more, she said.

“They say ‘cancer free.’ They say ‘remission.’ They say ‘no visible activity by cancer cells,’” Kelly said.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t get it back. And certain cancers metastasize. That’s a nasty word in the business.”

But the group has given her friends and a sisterhood, Kelly said. “I love the meetings.”