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Local cancer survivors band together to provide information and support via phone calls with community members experiencing cancer 

Cancer can be a lonely disease. It often leaves a person feeling overwhelmed with all the symptoms and side effects of treatment as well as the constant doctor visits.

But support is only a phone call away with the efforts of Cancer Connections of San Luis Obispo.

Established in 2005, the all-volunteer group takes calls from individuals experiencing cancer at any stage of their illness to provide words of encouragement, share their experiences, or offer recommendations to other organizations.

Elaine Gardiner founded Cancer Connections after undergoing her own battle with ovarian cancer in 1997.

"When I was first diagnosed I thought, 'Gee, I'd like to talk to somebody who has had this.' But of course I didn't know a soul," she said.

Instead, Gardiner got support from a friend who had survived breast cancer. While it wasn't the same type of cancer, she said having someone to talk to who understood what she was going through helped her feel better about how to approach her illness.

So Gardiner went along the path of the disease. She took half a year off from teaching elementary school, had a hysterectomy and six rounds of chemotherapy, lost all of her hair and had more surgery.

When that journey was over, she said she was ready to give back to others who struggle with cancer.

"A lot of us who have dealt with cancer have had, this is going to sound crazy, so many blessings. From the people we've met to the people that have helped us and do so much to care for us," she said.

The Cancer Connections group has grown from about five friends who are all cancer survivors to 50 members.

It starts with a phone call that gets picked up by Gardiner, who has a home office and a private line for Cancer Connections.

The calls are always confidential, and once the person on the other end explains their situation and the help they're looking for, Gardiner connects them with one of her members.

One of those next connections could be with Seema Benson. She's a breast cancer survivor and has been with the group from the beginning. She said she believed the group was a good alternative to what little support services were available at the time.

"I had gone to a support group, and I came back very disappointed because it was really more about people telling you what you should and shouldn't do," Benson said.

When connected with a member, she said, the caller can ask questions about what they've gone through or how certain medications have affected them. The group can't help with legal or medical questions, but its members can point callers in the right direction.

Benson said she personally feels that it's a gift to be able to be there for others by sharing her experience and knowledge.

"First of all it's scary to call someone because you're pretty much bearing your soul, and it's just such a scary diagnosis. But by being able to call someone from the comfort of your home instead of going to a meeting might be the right option for some," she said.

Cancer Connections is also available for family members or friends who have someone in their life who has been diagnosed with cancer. People who know a friend or have a family member with cancer Benson said, often feel helpless or want to learn how they can help.

The group is completely volunteer run, so it doesn't fundraise for itself or raise funds for other organizations with similar goals. The members don't need to raise money for the effort because almost all of the members are part of another organization that does just that, Gardiner said.

Cancer Connections' Bob Voglin, who was diagnosed with throat cancer 15 years ago, is one of those supporters. His wife saw an ad in the paper about the group, and he decided to join.

Not only is Voglin connecting with other individuals who are experiencing the disease, but he's raising money for hospitals and organizations that help those individuals combat it.

Voglin is the founder of Surfing for Hope, a longboard surfing competition that takes place in Pismo Beach. In addition to the competition, there's also a resource fair and musical entertainment.

The funds raised go toward the Cancer Resource Center, Cancer Support Community, Mission of Hope, and Arroyo Grande Hospital's Cancer Center.

The organization gives back in other ways, including partnering with the SeaCrest OceanFront Hotel to teach children whose guardians or family members are dealing with the disease how to surf.

"I feel like I'm one of the luckiest people in the world. I know cancer was very challenging for me, but I feel it was part of my path in life. And I think it propelled me into wanting to be more service-oriented with Cancer Connections. That was certainly the bond of why I wanted to do that," he said. Δ

Staff writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

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