LACONIA — Pat Anderson was in her 40s when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was an early diagnosis, but especially troubling to her because she frequently thought of her father, who died from cancer when she was a teenager.
She grew up in West Virginia, and one particular memory kept coming back: the sound of the floorboards creaking at night, as her father, too pained to sleep, paced.
“I had fairly early stage cancer. It was more emotional trauma than physical,” she said.
She was living in Kansas at the time and decided to seek out a support group to help her get through the difficult time. But the group she found was full of people who were older than her, and with bleaker prognoses, and she felt guilty for sharing her concerns with the group. She stopped attending after only a couple of sessions.
“I’m a nurse. I kept thinking that there’s got to be a better way to do this,” she said.
She found that better way years later, when her mother was in hospice in Madison, Wisconsin. Anderson moved temporarily to Madison to spend more time with her mother. While she was there, she met another woman who was interested in starting a Gilda’s Club in that city, and Anderson agreed to join the effort.
Gilda’s Clubs, named after comedian and original Saturday Night Live cast member Gilda Radner, offer a homelike setting for people to visit for programming, socializing or just to sit and read.
Radner, who died from ovarian cancer in 1989 at the age of 42, said the disease gave her “membership into an elite club I’d rather not belong to.” The first Gilda’s Club opened in New York City in 1991; there are now more than 170 locations in four countries. Anderson is well on her way to bringing one to Laconia — the next nearest one is in Montreal.
Gilda’s Clubs offer far more than support groups. They are a free place for people with cancer, or people whose loved ones are afflicted by the disease, to go for everything from structured educational events to places where they can play, laugh, talk and cry with people who understand what it means to have cancer in their lives.
“It includes the whole family — it includes kids, and they have social activities as well,” Anderson said.
Anderson, retired from a career in the U.S. Army, moved to Laconia six years ago, along with her husband, Wes, who heads the city’s Department of Public Works. Like Pat, Wes is also a cancer survivor.
When she moved to New Hampshire, Pat was surprised to learn that there were no Gilda’s Clubs in the region. She thought about starting one, but it takes a great deal of effort — they would need to raise enough money to secure a 4,000-square-foot space, with sufficient parking, and they would need to pay two staffers. Just to be able to use the name “Gilda’s Club,” they would need to raise $55,000 in order to show the global organization that they were serious.
But when Anderson was invited back to Madison for that club’s 10-year anniversary, she became inspired.
“All these people kept coming up to me, saying, ‘Thank you for what you did,’” she said. “On the plane on the way home, I said, ‘You know, we have to do this. We have to try.’”
Her effort, Gilda’s Club New Hampshire, began in earnest in mid-September, and the nonprofit organization has already raised $65,000 and assembled a board that includes Anderson, Jeff Fisher, Jennifer Anderson, Suzanne Stiles, Rod Dyer and Sandra Marshall.
“We’re off to a good start,” said Anderson, but she said they have a long way to go. She figures the organization needs to raise at least $300,000 — perhaps as much as $400,000 — before it can begin operating.
On Thursday, the board members welcomed Sally Werner, senior vice-president of affiliate relations from Cancer Support Community, the parent organization of Gilda’s Clubs. Werner presented Anderson with an official charter, welcoming the effort as an affiliate member of a group that delivers more than $50 million in support and education to people each year.
“We are here because of the commitment of the leaders here,” Werner told the small crowd that gathered at the Taylor Community’s Woodside Building for the ceremony. One of those leaders, in particular, is driving the effort, she said.
“Pat, your combination of passion and organizational skills are more than impressive — you all need to know that Pat is doing this in record speed,” Werner told the group.
Also at the ceremony, Bank of New Hampshire Chief Executive Officer Paul Falvey announced that, in addition to his bank’s previous gift to Gilda’s Club NH, the savings and loan institution will match the next $10,000 in donations.
The bank should get ready to make good on that promise soon, because Anderson said she had no intention of slowing down.
“Now we can really get serious,” Anderson said. “I know there are some groups that have been working for years, trying to do this. I’m too impatient for that … We need this now.”