EAST TAWAS – For those going through the process of battling cancer, there is a new support group that has been formed in the Tawases.
On Wednesday, March 23rd, members of the Alpena Chapter of Friends Together hosted a meet and greet at Barnacle Bill’s. The purpose of the event was to announce the participation of volunteers in the Tawas area who want to help support cancer patients and their families.
A total of 13 people took part.
Alpena’s Judy Burns and founder of Friends Together was a mother who cared for her daughter when she was diagnosed with colon cancer over 26 years ago.
She said she has traveled all over the United States to seek treatment and has never received good news. The road to cancer treatment was so risky and arduous that she felt more support was needed for those going through the same things as her daughter and she.
“I’ve learned so much about supporting people who are living with cancer. Before my daughter died, I promised her that no one would go through it like we did. It took me a little over a year and a half to pull myself together and I started Friends Together.
With only $75 to work with, she started a chapter in Alpena to help anyone who wanted help beating cancer. Today, they report a budget of over $400,000 and they serve hundreds of people daily.
“When someone is diagnosed with cancer, it’s a very different crossroads in their life,” she said.
“There is an expectation that it will be a bumpy ride. That’s one thing everyone has in common when people are diagnosed. We hope we can help smooth that path and help them over the bumps and ruts and get them to the next good place they need to be.”
Burns says the group aims to empower people to help themselves through the process of being diagnosed and treated for cancer. Navigating a complex healthcare system, planning treatments, and motivating yourself to stay active presents many challenges. Friends Together works to help individuals overcome them.
“First of all, it’s about understanding that you have a diagnosis, accepting it, and then getting a plan and working out your plan for better health,” she said.
Burns said she thought it would only be a monthly support group she would start, but it has grown into a massive organization serving seven counties. Friends Together has gradually expanded over the course of 25 years to provide programs and services for cancer sufferers in Northern Michigan.
Friends Together’s Alpena-centralized support groups, resource centers, and counselors are seeking to expand and serve those affected by cancer throughout northern Michigan.
Not limited to just helping cancer patients, Friends Together also offers sessions for caregivers and family members. There they will help answer questions about caring for a cancer patient and various ways friends and family can help/cope with a loved one affected by cancer.
There is a wide variety of topics and issues that Friends Together cover in their support groups and sponsored events.
“You get this big emotional hug when you walk in. You feel very well. You realize that you are not going through this experience all alone. You acknowledge that this is a confidential setting, so anything shared in that group stays in that group. What we try to do is be advocates for the patient and their families so they can proceed with care or get second opinions or learn more about diet, nutrition, wellness, attitude, activity, gentle yoga and mental relaxation. For them it is a holistic approach.”
Burns said they are not a substitute for medical treatment, but rather a supportive structure to help relax the body and mind. After all, improving a person’s outlook and mood has scientifically documented benefits, she said.
There are also fuel card programs where those in need who show up can take home fuel cards to pay for expenses.
There are women’s and men’s groups for gender-specific issues. For women, they pay for wigs, mastectomy prostheses, and a new bra. Men are offered the same treatment without bras.
Morse is the executive director of Harbor Lights Pregnancy Center who said cancer touched her life.
“What I’ve discovered is the financial situation of our local communities and the distance to care is so prohibitive,” Burns said. “We’re trying to leverage what we can offer them in our communities, and that’s why we’re starting in Tawas.”
Burns described an issue known as “financial toxicity,” which basically means cancer treatment eats up a person’s finances and can bankrupt some individuals completely.
What can happen is they don’t get the best possible treatment because they have to negotiate with the doctors and make compromises because they can’t afford to pay for gas or their insurance doesn’t provide a specific treatment they may need covers. This is why they have so many donation programs to help cover the cost of treatment.
In February alone, they gave out $3,000 worth of fuel cards.
There is currently a group in Rogers City and now Mary Morse of Tawas is helping to start a chapter in the Tawases.
I had family members (with cancer) and I wanted to honor them,” she said. “We were trying to get this group together before COVID hit and I had a sister who was undergoing cancer treatment at the time. I had a mother, a father, a brother who died from it. I don’t know of any family that hasn’t had a cancer experience.”
Morse said she hopes to help those who come to Friends Together to “look ahead”. Each meeting was about finding the next level in finding treatment and improving yourself to fight and hopefully beat cancer.
For the time being, the Tawas chapter is scheduled to begin regular meetings on April 5th at 5:30pm at the Barnacle Bills on Newman Street. They will meet there every Tuesday thereafter and are open to the fellowship.
For more information, call Friends Together at 989-356-3232 or visit their website at friendstogethermi.org.