Rebecca Whitlinger and Jennifer Kehm

From left are Rebecca Whitlinger, Cancer Caring Center executive director, and Jennifer Kehm, development and liaison manager.

For an unfortunately significant part of the population, the current coronavirus crisis is exacerbating an already stressful way of life.

“Having cancer is challenging enough,” Rebecca Whitlinger said. “And then you add COVID-19 to the mix.”

As executive director of Cancer Caring Center, based in Pittsburgh and serving individuals and families regionally, she and other members of the nonprofit organization’s staff want to make sure they continue to help people meet that challenge.

“We’re trying to count our blessings,” she said. “For 32 years, our goal has been to help patients and families. Our Bloomfield office is closed, but it allowed us to offer a virtual window.”

Among the services, all free, offered by Cancer Caring Center are a series of support groups, including regularly scheduled sessions in the South Hills. Stay-at-home and social-distancing restrictions have an alternative approach necessary.

“We knew that it was going to be a scary period for people going through treatment or even beyond, so we just tried to educate ourselves,” said Peters Township resident Jennifer Kehm, the center’s development and liaison manager. “I’d used Zoom before, but I’d never run a group or been a facilitator. And there were some concerns about safety, in terms of privacy.”

Then there was the matter of training 20-plus support group leaders, the great majority of whom now are leading virtual sessions.

“Everyone who runs our groups is either a mental health professional or a medical professional, such as a nurse or a nurse navigator,” Kehm said. “Many of these people are still working on the front lines all day long, and they’re turning around at night and running a support group. And they’re learning new technology on top of it. I could not be more proud to work with these individuals.”

Among the group leaders is Cancer Caring Center counseling director Wendy Myers, who got right on board with making sessions available virtually.

“I piloted it with a general cancer support group I do every Wednesday at 5 p.m. Surprisingly, I had like 25 people sign up for the first group,” she said. “People were just so much in need.”

Meeting virtually has allowed people to participate who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity. Myers gave the example of a woman from Kane, a McKean County community near the New York state line.

“She couldn’t ever get to any of the groups, but now she’s able to join my general group every Wednesday,” Myers said. “So the rural community, we’re reaching them.”

And online connectivity isn’t even an issue.

“You don’t even need a computer or a smartphone to join Zoom,” Kehm said. “You can just come in from the old-fashioned landline.”

Still, any hint of advanced technology can serves as somewhat of an impediment.

“Sometimes, people are intimidated the first time joining a group. So we will do whatever we can to help a patient get support,” Kehm said. “Being able to communicate in any way we can is really valuable.”

As word gets out about the adjustments to services offered by Cancer Caring Center, Kehm said the response has been positive.

“We have received calls from new patients, patients we have never worked with before, and for some of them, it probably wouldn’t have made sense to drive,” she said. “It’s definitely, I think, a great vehicle, and I really hope we’re able to continue at least a portion of these.”

Whitlinger agreed.

“This is maybe the way of the future, even though we love our outreach, which is from the South Hills to the North Hills,” she said. “We will definitely keep them as long as people are utilizing them.”

That would be in addition to the traditional format.

“Certainly, we will see people face-to-face again,” Myers said. “A lot of my clients are now starting to say, ‘Well, I really like this, Wendy, but I miss seeing you in person.’ And I miss being able to hand them my Kleenex box in person.”

A component of her counseling is discussing the scenario of a “new normal” in the wake of COVID-19.

“We can’t go backward. Globally, we’re not going to be able to go backward. We have to go forward, and how do we do that?” she said. “So I’m working with them: How do they do that with their cancer treatment, as well as in this COVID experience? How do I get you to look to go forward?”

She generally wraps up by asking, “What are the three things you can do each day to try to get through today?”

Her answer:

• “Try to find something that you do each day where you find some peace.”

• “Try to do something each day that will bring you some joy.”

• “Try to find something in the day to be grateful about.”

In addition to virtual support groups, Cancer Caring Center also is offering live streaming of programs addressing practices of mindfulness, such as “Yoga Facebook Live” and “Calming Techniques With Marlene.”

“It’s all about the patients and families, and when everything reopens, we don’t want people to have received an interruption in services,” Whitlinger said. “We’re doing our best to continue the outreach, because it’s key.”

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Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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