by Karen G. Meshkov
It’s early on a Sunday morning, but the lobby at Bryn Mawr Hospital’s Newtown Square facility is already abuzz. The space is teeming with women in stylish athleisure-wear; banquet tables are adorned with balloons and centerpieces. As guests make their way to their assigned seats, only the number of heads that remain fully covered by knit caps and scarves reveal that this is no ordinary Main Line brunch affair—this Wellness Day event is hosted by Unite for HER, a cutting-edge women’s health organization, and the attendees are Philadelphia-area women that have recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.
The “HER” stands for Healing to Empower and Restore, and Wellness Days are one of the organization’s signature programs. This interactive, one-day workshop will introduce these women to the range of services and education that will be provided to them over the next year through their fully-funded “wellness passports”.
Surrounded by hospital walls, the group settles in to learn a curriculum rarely associated with such an institution: yoga, acupuncture, organic nutrition, meditation, reiki and more, all designed to help manage the side effects of cancer treatment and to support their physical, emotional and spiritual healing.
Sue Weldon, the organization’s founder, lovely and approachable in her Unite for HER sweatshirt and jeans, begins the program by taking the audience back to the time of her own breast cancer diagnosis in 2004. She explains that she was coaching a highly competitive girls gymnastics team, raising three growing children and caring for her ailing mother. She was stressed, not sleeping well and surviving too often on adrenaline and coffee. Two months after her mom’s passing, Weldon was diagnosed with breast cancer, and within two weeks of diagnosis, a bi-lateral mastectomy and multiple rounds of chemo would follow.
The tone in her voice shifts as she recalls how strange it felt to be congratulated by the medical team upon completion of her chemotherapy treatments. “I looked like a 12-year-old boy,” she says. “I had no hair, no breasts and I was undergoing early menopause even though I wanted to have more children.” With the cancer went her femininity and self-esteem, she says, recounting her incredulity that there were no ongoing supports to help her manage and regain her physical and emotional health. The services that did exist were not covered by medical insurance.
After discovering an abundance of research on the effectiveness of integrating complementary therapies, Weldon embarked on a personal recovery plan that reduced her pain, increased her energy and improved her overall wellness. It was then that she knew she wanted to make this available to other women, regardless of their financial situation. Over the next four years, Weldon went to work, with the support of many committed volunteers, building the mission of Unite for HER.
“You know, when people have heart disease or knee surgery or other such medical conditions, there is usually a rehab plan, where you might get six months of PT or OT.” Her words are met with approving nods and smiles. “For cancer? There’s nothing.” She pauses, before affirming, “We are that something.”
To the women that have been recipients of Weldon’s vision, that “something” is everything. Last year alone the organization funded and delivered services to more than 1,000 local, newly diagnosed women. Each woman receives up to $2,000 in treatments and a personalized survivorship plan.
Together with a lean, dedicated staff and an ever-growing cadre of volunteers and philanthropic partners, what started as a small program at Paoli Hospital in 2010 has grown into a partnership with 16 hospitals that has served more than 3,000 breast cancer patients in the Philadelphia region. It was well deserved when Weldon was given Philadelphia Magazine’s prestigious Be Well Philly Health Hero award in 2016.
Unite for HER’s mission, and the aim of the services it provides, is to close the chasm between holistic health and traditional, allopathic medicine. Its success in gaining approval for acupuncture, massage therapy and other complementary healing modalities inside more than a dozen of the area’s major health systems signals an important paradigm shift. Unite for HER is literally and symbolically opening the hospital door for integrative modalities, not just for breast cancer patients, but for patients with all forms of chronic and acute illnesses.
“Our program greatly benefits women with breast cancer in the Philadelphia area,” Weldon notes, “but what about women elsewhere? What about anyone, anywhere with a difficult diagnosis? These types of programs need to gain acceptance and be established universally. Right now, we can continue to add hospitals as funding permits, one at a time. We need the support of a health-conscious public. We need the support of partner institutions.”
One such advocate is Marti Lyman, MSN, a Nurse Navigator at the Barbara Brodsky Comprehensive Breast Center at Bryn Mawr Hospital. “Now we can say to patients who are having hot flashes, try this acupuncture, it doesn’t hurt, it’s free. And then they come back and tell us how much it’s helped.” She has become a believer in the power of complementary modalities, particularly massage, after seeing how it has helped patients with neuropathy and pain.
The admiration goes both ways. The organization exhibits deep respect for the oncologists, nurses and other medical professionals that provide cancer treatment. She emphasizes that each party plays a distinct role in integrative care: “The doctors treat the cancer. Unite for HER heals the woman.”
As Weldon knows all too well, powerful healing cannot happen without powerful healers. Consequently, the organization has a rigorous application process and maintains an internal vetting system to ensure their practitioners deliver the highest standard of care.
Despite its incredible success, Unite for HER exists solidly in the financial reality of being a nonprofit and is always working for its next donation or grant. To do so, it maintains an exhaustive schedule of fundraisers each year, including The Pink Invitational, a national gymnastics meet that draws athletes from across the country and several high-profile corporate sponsors. These efforts yielded over $1.2 million last year, a remarkable majority of which went directly to funding wellness passports. Sadly, the demand for services among women battling breast cancer is far greater than what Unite for HER is able to provide.
At the height of Wellness Day, in meeting space A, participants are doing a deep breathing exercise called pranayama, an ancient yogic practice used in relieving anxiety. In an adjacent conference room, an integrative internist presents a PowerPoint on the scientific evidence supporting acupuncture, a 2,000-year-old practice proven to effectively decrease headaches, hot flashes, nausea and other side effects of chemotherapy. Across the hall, the women are paired with a professional bodyworker and prepare to receive a therapeutic massage or reiki treatment.
As the lights are lowered and meditative music begins to play, it’s as if the entire room has exhaled. It’s not long before the stress reduction effects are felt, and a palpable calm washes over the room.
Karen G. Meshkov is publisher and director of advertising partnerships for Natural Awakenings of Bucks and Montgomery Counties.