“From the day that we’re diagnosed to the day … that we leave this Earth, we are survivors,” Geri Barish, a Baldwin resident and the executive director of the Hewlett House, told a group of about 30 Nassau County residents on May 11. They included cancer patients and their families who were at Hewlett House for South Nassau’s Cancer Survivors Day.
Barish is a survivor. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1986, and was supposed to receive her first radiation treatment the day of her 25-year-old son’s funeral. Michael Barish, had been diagnosed with cancer at age 13. To deal with her son’s diagnosis, Barish said, she needed more information about cancer — and someone to talk to.
“I sat around this room with 25 other parents, and I said I had to find out why he got cancer,” she recalled.
As she found out more about the disease, Barish became an activist for cancer research and treatment. In the early 2000s, Bruce Blakeman, the head of the Nassau County Legislature at the time, asked Barish what she would do with a historical house that was deeded to the county. Barish responded that she would like to create a home environment for cancer patients. Nassau County turned over the Hewlett House to Barish’s group, the 1-in-9 Long Island Breast Cancer Action Coalition. Eventually, cancer patients from across the county showed up at the Hewlett House. “People started knocking on the doors and saying I have brain cancer, my sister has lung cancer … and we just realized that people needed a place to go, so we opened our doors before it was even ready,” Barish said.
Now the Hewlett House is considered a community center for those with cancer. It provides wigs for patients who have lost their hair during chemotherapy and prosthetics for those who have lost limbs. The house also offers activities for cancer patients, such as painting classes and reiki. “This house is duplicated nowhere,” said Marlene Natale, the facilitator of the Hewlett House, who is from West Hempstead. Natale also does family counseling for teenagers who have parents suffering from cancer. “It’s just a matter of how they can communicate and understand the needs that the cancer patient has and that the young teen has,” she said.
Hewlett House also offers support groups for those who have cancer. Nancy Coyle, of Valley Stream, attends every Tuesday. “Sometimes we laugh through the entire class, and sometimes there’s tears and people need support,” she said.
Coyle was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. Initially, she said, she had a tumor between her kidney and one of her ureters, which then spread to her lymph nodes. To treat the cancer, she tried surgery and chemotherapy, which made her feel ill. It was so bad, she said, that her husband, John, would have to take her to her chemotherapy. “I used to say his whole job was to bring me back and forth to the doctor,” she said. “He’s a saint.”
Fortunately, Coyle no longer needs chemotherapy. She is in a clinical trial at the Milo Cancer Center at Yale for Opdivo, a drug used to stop the growth of cancer cells, which she said does not make her sick. “I think you have to go where the treatments are,” she said.