Hunched over beads and filament in a jewelry-making workshop, Sandy Buchbinder spent another sustaining hour Tuesday in the company of her comrades in the cancer wars.
She finds it at the Cancer Support Community of the Greater Lehigh Valley, where the medical core of cancer treatment is augmented by activities designed to boost that ineffable but essential weapon, the human spirit.
The nonprofit agency in Hanover Township, Northampton County, operates on the premise that a cancer patient keeping busy among kindred spirits will fare far better than one frightened and alone.
Thus, jewelry-making. Dance. Pilates. Cooking classes. Support groups. It's all free for the participants, who say the value they draw from CSC activities is beyond estimation.
"I go to the doctor to take care of the physical part of my cancer and here to take care of the spiritual part," said Buchbinder, who fought thyroid cancer earlier in life.
Does it work? The nonprofit Institute of Medicine, a government advisory agency, says the psychological and social stresses of cancer can impede healing. And those stresses are exactly what the CSC programs are designed to alleviate.
"I feel like I've lasted about two years longer than they expected," said Steve Drechsler of Palmer Township, who is fighting advanced prostate cancer and attributes his unexpected longevity to the center's activities — particularly the Asian discipline of qigong, which is said to enhance well-being through manipulation of body energy.
Program director Jen Sinclair said many of the activities, such as knitting and writing, are designed so participants can practice them at home, in the hospital or at the doctor's office — wherever the stress of cancer treatment might catch up to them.
"Like waiting for test results," said Valerie Cassella of Brodheadsville, naming one among many anxious times in the life of a patient.
The center, at 3200 Bath Pike (Route 512), is one of 50 affiliates of an organization founded in 1982 as the Wellness Center. It became the Cancer Support Community in 2009 after joining with Gilda's Club Worldwide, a similar organization named for Gilda Radner. The "Saturday Night Live" alum died of ovarian cancer in 1989.
CSC has been active in the Lehigh Valley for eight years. Sinclair said the people who lead educational seminars and support groups are contracted staffers, but the center also relies on scores of volunteers to lead crafting and other activities.
"It's all meant to complement the medical care," Sinclair said, adding that all programs are evaluated for their effectiveness in decreasing stress and improving attitudes toward treatment.
"I haven't been to anything here that I haven't gotten something out of," said Buchbinder, who found the feminizing spirit of a healing dance class to be pure tonic in the distressing time after her mastectomy.
She also attends a Tuesday night support group, where patients share stories, frustrations and advice.
"I have a wonderful family," Buchbinder said, "but they didn't go through the journey. My Tuesday night family understands because they've been there."
The participants in CSC tend to become evangelists for the program. They keep an eye out for likely beneficiaries — say, someone wearing a hat or scarf to cover the telltale baldness from chemotherapy.
"I always keep extra program calendars in my car," Cassella said. "It's a lifeline."