Cancer support group flourishes on island of Martha’s Vineyard

By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

EDGARTOWN, Mass. — For most of us, Martha’s Vineyard conjures up images of beautiful beaches, quaint shops and the potential sightings of famous actors or even the President of the United States. It’s known as a summer haven whose population swells to more than 100,000 during peak season, but there are more than 16,000 residents who call the island their home year-round. AnneMarie Donahue is one of those who appreciate the benefits of living year-round on the island, but her picturesque island life was shattered 26 years ago, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“When you’re diagnosed with cancer, it’s a very, very frightening thing,” said the Edgartown resident, who was 33 years old at the time. “I didn’t know if I was going to live to see my 40th birthday. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

A friend of Donahue’s had already been diagnosed with cancer and had been looking for a support group. After seeing an ad in the local paper spoofing the “Got milk?” ad with an ad asking, “Got cancer?” Donahue’s friend called the number listed.

“I think she put her name and phone number, and a dear friend of mine saw that, and she had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer, and the two of them officially connected. They started reaching out to more people, one of whom was me,” recalled Donahue. “At the time it was not a formal group; it was just a group of women meeting very informally at each other’s homes to share their worries and hope, and from that it just evolved.”

As the group expanded to include new people, the group began to meet once a week in the doctors’ library at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, “then it really started to grow,” said Donahue. “It wasn’t just women, it was men as well, and all different types of cancer.”

Most of those coming to those early meetings were newly-diagnosed “and so in need of talking to other people who totally understood what they were going through, and looking for information,” said Donahue. “If one of the women was just that much further ahead in her treatment, then maybe she had things to offer others in terms of experiences, like nausea — oh, this is what helped me. Getting mouth sores from the chemo? This is something to try; just those little things like that were really helpful.

“The good news is that we were there for those newly-diagnosed, the bad news is that, as we all know, cancer is an insidious disease and it doesn’t discriminate and affects so many people. More and more people were being diagnosed and finding out about us, mainly through word-of-mouth at that point.”

Due to the need for extensive treatments, many of the cancer patients found themselves having to travel off-island for chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, and individuals found themselves floundering in mounting medical bills, along with lost income from missing work for treatments. Suddenly, the support group members realized that more than emotional support was needed for their colleagues.

“What began to slowly happen, through the years as we sat across the table from each other, what we realized was that, not only were these people in need of emotional support, they were really, really struggling financially,” said Donahue. “We began talking among ourselves, and exploring what it took to become a not-for-profit group so that we could start raising money.”

A lawyer working pro bono helped establish the Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group, Inc. in 1996. Run strictly by a volunteer board of directors who meet once a month to review applications, the group started its efforts with a fund-raiser that has evolved into the “Evening Under the Stars” annual event.

“Area restaurants and businesses have been just wonderful in donating all the food, drink and desserts. We have been able to have that every year, and I think it’s become something people really look forward to,” said Donahue.

The fund-raising efforts also include an annual tennis tournament, blueberry pancake breakfast, and recently the group took over the Daffodil Days from the American Cancer Society. Earlier this year, during the board of directors monthly meeting, the group decided to reach out to the churches on the island, including the Catholic parish, where the pastor of Good Shepherd Parish, Father Michael Nagle, is spreading the word and putting the group’s mission in church bulletins.

 “It was a very effective way of getting the word out,” said Donahue.

Applications for year-round residents of the island can be found on the group’s newly established website: www.MVCancerSupport.org, and the board of directors work to meet the needs of all those who apply, with requests running the gamut, from transportation to off-island housing, to child care to alternative treatments like acupuncture and massage; “We are very open to helping the patient doing what they can to get well as quickly and effectively as possible,” said Donahue.

“The beauty of what we do is we raise money specifically to help island cancer patients and families with different costs,” said Donahue. “Every penny that we raise goes to all of the patients.”

Thanks to Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, new medical oncology and hematology services are now offered at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, whereas the choices before had been seeking treatments either on the Cape or in Boston, said Donahue. Still, not every treatment type is available, and the group’s website offers a detailed resource list.

“All the money goes to the patients, and I think that really impresses people here,” said Donahue. “I have to say, this group is very close to my heart. I have been through breast cancer two more times, and the good news is I’m very well. I truly don’t know what I’d do without this group. One gal put it really well, that while she wouldn’t have asked to be diagnosed with cancer, in some ways it was a gift because of the people she has met through this group, and possibly may have never have met them in other circumstances. 

“We are filling that need for year-round island people. I think people think of Martha’s Vineyard as this wonderful, seasonal place that all the rich people come to visit their beautiful homes. The reality is that there is a very large, year-round population that are barely middle class, working hard to make ends meet, and when you have cancer thrown in that disrupts the financial part of their household, they are absolutely in need.”

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