Once a month, the auxiliary conference room at McLeod Seacoast Hospital in Little River becomes an oasis of hope for those whose lives have been touched by cancer.
This room is home base for a group called Coping Together.
The brainchild of co-founders Michele Hartman and Nan Hasting, Coping Together is celebrating its third year as an ongoing cancer support group and has recently expanded into a 501(c)3 nonprofit, enabling the organization to provide temporary financial relief to those in the heartrending position to decide perhaps on whether to keep the lights on or pay for prescription cancer medications.
“It’s the only cancer support group in the North Strand,” said Hasting, herself a two-time breast cancer survivor.
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Indeed, the two friends share an up-close and personal experience with the disease. Hartman lost her husband, Randy Hartman, after a 20-year on-and-off battle with cancer just weeks before the first informational meeting for Coping Together was to take place.
Hasting was diagnosed with stage 3 lobular breast carcinoma in 2004, after undergoing a lumpectomy. She had a bilateral mastectomy and a course of chemotherapy.
She and husband Bernie Hasting retired from the U.S. Postal Service and moved to the Grand Strand permanently in 2011. They had only been here for a few months before she was diagnosed with breast cancer again.
“I was diagnosed with the same type of cancer, and I had my implants removed – and then I had chemo again. You think you’re doing everything right, and boom,” she said.
Their husbands were golfing buddies.
One day, Hartman was on her front porch when Hasting walked down to see her, and Hartman brought up the subject of a North End cancer support group, and the fact that the closest one at that time was in Georgetown.
Hasting was all ears and all-in, and the pair made plans to start the ball rolling.
Hartman said that the unexpected death of her husband from complications of treatment threw them into a tailspin.
“He was going to help us with the business part of Coping Together since he was a CPA and attorney, and of course my loving husband for 37 years,” she said, adding that her husband had thyroid cancer that spread over 20 years at different times to his left vocal cord, carotid artery, jugular vein and left lung.
“He had successful surgeries which were very high risk for the above, and then passed in 2013 because of radiation complications due to another return of cancer in the thyroid bed,” Hartman said.
Hartman pointed out that a surgeon once told the couple that thyroid cancer is called the “good cancer,” and the success rate can be 90 percent and never return after drinking a radioactive iodine cocktail.
“We thought that would be his case,” she said.
She remembered Hasting approaching her days after her husband’s burial, saying that she would understand if Hartman couldn’t continue with the plans.
“I said to Nan that he would want me to do this, and the rest is history,” she said.
For the first five months, the group met at Little River United Methodist Church.
“In January 2014, McLeod Seacoast Hospital found out about us and offered us their meeting room and to do public service announcements for meetings. Our church still plays an important role for Coping Together. Meetings are posted in all of their publications,” Hartman said.
Coping Together encompasses all types of cancer, and the group is inclusive.
“We have people in this group that have dealt with cancer – patients, family members and friends. We have survivors and people going through treatment right now. It’s not just the patient or cancer survivor – it’s the caregiver, the neighbor. It really reaches out to everybody.”
The fact that there is a permanent spot for these meetings is a plus.
“McLeod [Seacoast] is kind enough to let us use their auxiliary conference room on the second floor,” she said. “If it gets bounced around, it gets too confusing.”
A key feature of these meetings is the speaker component, which according to Hasting runs the gamut from doctors, RN’s, nutritionists, physical therapists and chiropractors to the cancer survivors themselves.
“The last meeting was one of our largest attended with close to 20 people,” she said. “We had an oncology nurse from Coastal Cancer Center, Lori Cotton. She spoke so candidly, and a lot of questions were answered.”
The next scheduled speaker will be general surgeon Amanda Turbeville, MD on October 3.
Turbeville said she will be covering what is cancer, when and how to get breast screenings, breast cancer stages and treatments for breast cancer.
“The most important takeaway is that early detection, including education and screening, are shown to reduce cancer mortality,” she said.
The value of a support group like Coping Together cannot be overstated.
“It is so wonderful that this support group is available for patients, caregivers and members of the community. It is so important to have support during the journey with cancer. Being able to share experiences, ideas and communicating with others who understand is so significant and helps with the healing process,” Turbeville said.
Hasting has been sharing her experience with others since her first diagnosis. She is heavily involved with the American Cancer Society – and Coping Together is recognized by the organization as a support group.
Troy Matheny, community manager for the American Cancer Society in Myrtle Beach, said that Coping Together is listed in the database at the American Cancer Society’s call center.
“If someone calls [800-227-2345] and asks for resources in our area, they will let the caller know about Coping Together,” he said.
Matheny said Hasting has been the coordinator for the Road to Recovery program for the organization, which provides patients with rides to and from treatment. She also volunteers for the Reach to Recovery program, which Matheny said connects her to newly diagnosed breast cancer survivors.
“Nan is a two-time breast cancer survivor, so she helps the person going through their breast cancer journey. What better way than someone who has been through it,” he said.
Hasting became a team captain for the Relay For Life of North Myrtle Beach/Little River in 2015 with Coping Together as a team.
“In 2016, with all her passion and experience, she became the lead of the North Myrtle Beach Relay and will continue in this role in 2017,” he said.
Matheny believes that a support group is key for someone going through cancer or for a caregiver.
“They talk about what they are feeling and ask their questions of those who have been through it. They form a unique bond that only they can understand because they have experienced cancer or they are experiencing it right now.”
Earlier this year, Coping Together became a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
“This allows us to hold fundraisers, and what we do is try to help people who are struggling with their bills,” said Hasting. “Let’s say you have to get your medicine or you have to get your electric bill paid. A lot of people don’t get their medicine because they have to keep their electric on. We pay small bills – grocery bills, electric bills, gas bills – sometimes they just need their tank filled up just to get to their appointments.”
Marlisa K. Small, owner of Marlisa’s Wig Studio in Little River, is also a singer. She did a concert as a fundraiser for the group and helped to get it set up as a nonprofit.
Small, a 25-year cancer survivor herself, also runs a nonprofit called Bold & Beautiful Wigs for Cancer, which since 2010 has provided free custom wigs to cancer patients undergoing treatment.
“Nan came to me and said she wanted to help people with cancer who are going through financial struggles to help them pay their utility bill or to get a Food Lion card – or even to pay for a haircut for their husband,” she said. “They started this 501(c)3 to do just that – and to help promote their support group.”
Small has seen her share of cancer patients who are suffering financially.
“Not only does it change you, but it strips you of things because you are not able to work. You are not able to provide,” she said.
Small is a proponent of post-treatment support.
“I notice that when some of my clients start getting back a little bit of fuzz, people are like, ‘Oh, they are going to be OK. Well, guess what – they are not OK. They are still having the side effects of what cancer has done to them and they still need support – and probably need it the most then,” she said.
Along the way, Hasting and Hartman knew they wanted to do more.
“When we started the group, we had a great turnout and it was wonderful, but I felt like there should be something more we could do – so Michele and I talked about doing some small fundraisers to start helping people with their bills, and we have been able to do that,” Hasting said.
Hartman said that Coping Together has been a wonderful community effort, and is thankful to Little River United Methodist Church, McLeod Seacoast Hospital and all of the volunteer speakers.
“Three years later, I think we have reached out to a much needed voice. Most cancer patients want to talk and share their stories. We all have a wealth of information to share whether you are a caregiver or cancer patient. Also, with obtaining out 501(c)3 status, we plan to and have already helped patients with their expenses,” she said.
The next Coping Together meeting will take place Monday at 6 p.m. at McLeod Seacoast Hospital.
For more information on Coping Together, call Nan Hasting at 502-396-9660 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The group is also on Facebook: www.facebook.com/CopingTogetherNorthStrandSC .