Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

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October 9, 2013

Fighting Cancer With Friends: Annual ‘Friends’ luncheon promotes cancer awareness, overall health

JACKSONVILLE —

When they arm themselves with knowledge and find ways to stay healthy, women empower themselves and subsequently have a greater chance of taking the teeth out of what otherwise would be a scary diagnosis of cancer, said a Tyler oncologist who addressed this year's “Friend to Friend” luncheon in Jacksonville.

“We talk about lifestyle – about things people can do for themselves,” like exercising, drinking proper amounts of water daily, maintaining a moderate intake of food and following suggested guidelines for health screenings, said Dr. Sasha Vukelja.

“You do everything for yourself” – she waved her hands over her torso – “and then you do the inside look,” she grinned.

“Because I think patients are empowered when they have information about how to take care of themselves – they are hungry to learn how to take care of themselves,” she pointed out. “Not only that, but also, if there is a diagnosis of cancer, they're in better (physical) shape to handle that.”

Vukelja – better known to her patients as “Dr. V” – was the speaker at the third annual event, held at First United Methodist Church. Approximately 100 attended, including a handful of men.

“Friend to Friend” is “a way to educate women who might not have gotten that education in any other way, and it's presented in a fun, pleasant atmosphere with lunch, and they learn something that may not be very comfortable, but we're going to do it with friends and it won't be as scary,” said event coordinator Wendi Green, who is an A&M AgriLife extension agent serving Cherokee Coun-ty.

The goal of the program, which alternates between Jacksonville and Rusk, is to help people – “even if it's someone in their family, or a friend facing” a cancer diagnosis”– to “maybe feel better about the outlook for it,” Green said.

“Like Dr. V said – they empower themselves to be a survivor, to move forward.”

Copies of Dr. V's books SEEDS: A Memoir and Seeds from my Patients, were on sale during Tuesday's events, with proceeds from their sales donated to Cancer Foundation for Life, a local organization dedicated to helping cancer patients live life to the fullest, according to a release promoting Tue-sday's luncheon.

Vukelja described one of the programs – FitSTEPS for Life, created a dozen years ago by retired Tyler oncologist Gary Kimmel – to the audience, talking about how participants are able to build up their strength physically, emotionally and, in some cases, spiritually, because of the fellowship found at the weekly classes.

It's a program “for cancer patients and survivors – not just breast or cervical, but for all cancers,” she explained, describing how important it is to give patients tools to help control their recovery.

“We found out that with our patients, you see them (for) 20 to 25 minutes, but what really, really matters is what happens between the (appointments),” she said. “They come to see you, they wait a couple of hours to see you, they see you for half an hour and they're gone. And they come back in three months, and you have no idea what happens in that period … and that is the interim that is very important.”

Through program like Fit STEPS, they actively build a regimen to recovery, Dr. V said.

“They are a lot more independent, they're more motivated, they take less medications for blood pressure, they lose weight … they'll live longer,” she said.

She also described a trial going on with patients exercising half an hour before undergoing chemotherapy, and how their bodies seem to be responding better to that treatment.

“We have, actually, treadmills in the chemo area … and it's amazing” seeing the outcome of that trial, she said.

This year, “Friend to Friend” program coordinators came up with a new project: Banners that women can sign, pledging to undergo breast and cervical screenings, dedicating their acts in the names of someone special, Green said.

The banners will be displayed at community libraries in Rusk, Alto and Jacksonville.

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