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A journey of hope

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Wailea resident and two-time cancer survivor Kay Anderson is helping others navigate their own cancer journeys through Maui Cancer Wellness Retreats, a nonprofit organization that offers programs and resources to Maui County’s cancer community. Photo courtesy Kay Anderson

The moment will forever be seared into Kay Anderson’s memory. Still reeling from a devastating diagnosis of stage-four liver cancer, she met with her doctor, who delivered a grim prognosis. “He told me, ‘Get your affairs in order. You have less than six months to live,’ “ she said.

That was 12 years ago.

Anderson beat the odds not just once, but twice: In addition to advanced-stage liver cancer, the retired registered nurse also survived metastatic breast cancer. Both times, she said, “I did everything I could to live.”

Today, Anderson is helping others navigate their own cancer journeys, journeys that have been made even more difficult by COVID-19. “Cancer doesn’t stop in a pandemic,” she said. Anderson says there are more than 800 newly diagnosed cancer patients in Maui County every year, and for many of them, cancer care in the time of COVID-19 has been fraught with challenges.

That’s where organizations like Maui Cancer Wellness Retreats step in to offer support. Established in 2017, the nonprofit helps Maui County residents with any type of cancer diagnosis “transform their lives to a new and better level of health and wellness.” Its programs incorporate experiential learning and integrative oncology modalities (integrative oncology uses evidence-based therapies to relieve cancer-related symptoms like anxiety, depression or pain) and are open to all Maui, Lanai and Molokai residents with a focus on the underserved and economically disadvantaged. The nonprofit’s flagship program is its three-day retreat, which gives attendees an opportunity to take time for themselves, connect with others in the cancer community, and assemble a self-care toolkit while participating in experiential activities like relaxation therapy, art therapy and proprioceptive writing, as well as nutrition and wellness education.

Anderson joined the nonprofit’s all-volunteer board of directors earlier this year, but has been involved with Maui Cancer Wellness Retreats since 2019. That year, she attended a fundraiser for the organization and met Dr. Bridget Bongaard, affectionately known as “Dr. B.,” a board-certified internal medicine physician and the nonprofit’s president and medical director. At the time, Bongaard was preparing to host the annual three-day retreat and asked Anderson to share her story as a guest speaker. Anderson accepted the invitation and witnessed firsthand the transformative impact of the program. She says joining the board of directors was a natural next step, and since then, she’s used her nursing background and personal experience to help cancer patients and survivors take charge of their health and practice self-care.

In light of COVID-19, Anderson and her fellow board members made the heart-wrenching decision to cancel the 2020 retreat. But it is only one of the many programs the nonprofit offers to the local cancer community. Maui Cancer Wellness Retreats also coordinates and facilitates topical workshops and “DayTreats” throughout the year. The next DayTreat will take place Oct. 3 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at St. Theresa Church in Kihei. Designed for cancer survivors at any stage in their journey, the free, COVID-19-safe daylong retreat will cover a range of topics, including managing uncertainty, vision setting, and science-backed ways to improve your immune system.

Maui Cancer Wellness Retreats also hosts weekly “Share and Care” check-ins on Zoom every Wednesday and Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m. Open to cancer patients, survivors and caregivers, the free virtual support sessions provide a forum for sharing concerns and successes and focus on four common types of cancer: breast, lung, colorectal and melanoma. There will also be an eight-week-long mindfulness-based stress reduction series for cancer survivors; the live program will be offered on Zoom on Saturday mornings beginning Sept. 19. Additionally, the nonprofit has a number of resources on its website, including a cancer care toolkit and a “Living Library” composed of videos that cover everything from sleep to chrononutrition to self-hypnosis.

“We offer programs for cancer patients by cancer patients,” Anderson explained. “For example, I am a two-time cancer survivor and we have several other cancer survivors that volunteer. As a cancer survivor, I truly believe you may have the diagnosis, but you determine the prognosis. We have gone through the cancer journey and can provide valuable advice and companionship as they go through their journey. Our mission is ‘personalized transformation for cancer patients through compassionate support and evidence-based education.’ This says it all.”

Anderson says she will do everything she possibly can to help those who have been touched by cancer. “I’m driven by my passion to support cancer patients and work with them directly, as well as creating programs that will be meaningful and improve their quality of life,” she said. “We would like to have all cancer patients contact us whether they are newly diagnosed, starting or undergoing treatment or have finished treatment. We have something to offer everyone on this journey.”

To register for the DayTreat on Oct. 3, visit www.mauicancerwellnessretreats.org/daytreats. For more information about the weekly “Share and Care” check-ins, visit www.mauicancerwellnessretreats.org/share-and-care. To learn more about Maui Cancer Wellness Retreats or to inquire about donor or volunteer opportunities, visit www.mauicancerwellnessretreats.org.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.

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