EVERETT — The impressive five-story building in north Everett is one people drive by and hope they’ll never need to enter.
When they do set foot inside for the first time, it is often in a daze.
By then, there’s been a series of blood tests and scans, the diagnosis and referral. Then comes the sit-down with the oncologist, the calls to the insurance providers, and the layman’s crash course in molecular biology.
Inside the building, strategies are plotted and medicines prescribed. Treatments — chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and other plans of attack — are carried out to quell the sickened cells.
Providence Regional Cancer Partnership is where patients meet professionals with hopes of a cure.
It is also where nearly two dozen volunteers try to make the ordeal a little more bearable.
Some volunteers have had cancer themselves. Others watched loved ones endure.
Each has their own reason for coming back.
A friendly face
Larry Behan takes on many tasks as an American Cancer Society volunteer.
The Everett man often can be spotted walking the straight-aways on the third floor. That’s where patients bide their time beneath warm blankets, napping, chatting, scrolling on their electronic devices or gazing at the Cascade Range while chemo drugs drip into their bloodstream. He carries brown paper bags with twine handles. The bags typically contain a book, crossword puzzles, a hat, tea, ChapStick and an assortment of ginger-infused goodies to help with nausea.
“I’m not a doctor and I don’t talk doctor,” he’s apt to tell patients who are receiving their first treatment. “I would like to talk with you if I can.”
He invites them down to the Cancer Resource Center on the first floor. He tells them about the wig room next to the resource center, or how they can get hats or scarves. He explains that the center is a good place to ask practical questions about what to expect.
Behan volunteers twice a week. His wife was a patient of the Providence Regional Cancer Partnership and Providence Hospice. She died of brain and lung cancer in July 2010. Tina Behan was 55. They were married for 29 years and raised four children.
The care she received led Larry Behan back to the cancer center as a volunteer six months after her death.
Behan contributes in many ways, talking with patients, training new volunteers, and delivering the bags and soliciting donations for their contents. He’ll even offer to take photos of patients as they try on wigs so they can text the images home for a second opinion.
He doesn’t bring up his wife’s story to patients unless it comes up in conversation.
There are tender moments and difficult conversations. He remembers the excited teen in the electric wheelchair preparing for her prom and questions from patients who’ve been given months to live.
Behan comes back each week eager to help in whatever way he can.
“It’s something I really want to do,” he said.
Ways to help
Shortly after the cancer center opened in 2007, Kathy Reiff was approached by Marilyn Birchman, who’s now the clinical research manager for Providence Regional Cancer Partnership.
Reiff is what’s known as an American Cancer Society patient navigator, which is another way of saying she helps people figure out ways to get help as they begin their journeys through cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Birchman wanted to know how volunteers could best help when the Cancer Resource Center opened in 2008. She then began asking around, finding meaningful tasks that needed doing.
They learned as they went, and it turned out there is always plenty to do. In any given year, volunteers can encounter 600 to 700 new patients as well as those who are continuing treatment.
There are volunteers who drive patients to and from appointments. There are the gift bags to fill and wigs to fit, literature to stock, cancer notebooks to assemble and donations to gather. Sometimes, they are called to a bedside for a chat, or they keep patients company while they wait for a ride after treatment.
“Kind of what I say is we will do anything that is legal,” Reiff said. “The only thing we can’t do is push a wheelchair.”
Yet they can — and do — retrieve wheelchairs. They even have an app to find them in the parking lots. In 2016, volunteers gave 4,916 hours of their time.
Besides the nearly two dozen regulars at the center, Reiff comes into contact with others who find ways to help. There are those who organize an annual WigFest fundraiser. Donations trickle in in many forms, from a mortgage company providing coffee mugs full of candy and tea at the holidays to the Machias second-grader who got her classmates to make necklaces and asked her friends to bring her hats for cancer patients instead of presents on her birthday.
Word of the Cancer Resource Center and what it does has spread beyond Snohomish County. Reiff has received visitors representing similar centers in California and Arizona. The center itself has the feel of a living room, complete with loveseats, armchairs and a fireplace. It’s stocked with information on the many types of cancer as well as free head scarves and hats, hand-made and donated lap quilts, crocheted blankets and pillows made for patient comfort.
On the shelves are glass dishes containing ribbons of different colors. Each color represents a kind of cancer. There are 26 colors.
Marilee Richards neatly attaches pins to the ribbons, one of the ways the legally blind Everett woman has found to contribute.
She also has added pins to ribbons for volunteers and caregivers to wear.
The one for caregivers is a shade between a plum and violet.
It is one she can relate to well.
Richards cared for her parents when they were diagnosed with cancer. Wilbur “Red” Sea had prostate cancer that spread to his bones. Norma Sea had pancreatic cancer and a rare blood cancer. They died within 11 weeks of one another in 2012: she on Father’s Day at the age of 87, he on Labor Day at 91.
She watched their health deteriorate over four years and spent many hours at the cancer center with her parents.
Volunteering became an outlet after they died.
Richards sometimes finds herself giving directions to bewildered newcomers and encouragement to those who need it.
It has been a rewarding outlet.
“I think it is the one thing I look most forward to most every week,” she said.
Stories of hope
It is a Tuesday morning in October and there’s a good turnout inside the resource center.
Some have been volunteers for several years; others are just a few hours into their first shift.
They share their stories.
Eugene Maier Sr., of Lake Stevens, received 44 days of radiation that helped beat prostate cancer. He’s been volunteering for four years.
“The best part is going and visiting the patients,” he said. “I spend a lot of time in rooms. That’s what I want though.”
Adah Langham, of Mukilteo, had breast cancer 17 years ago and later cared for her husband, Bill, when he was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurodegenerative condition that affects the brain and spinal cord. Bill had been Adah’s main support and she was his.
“Now it’s time to give back,” she said. “It gives you a great feeling to have helped somebody.”
Suzanne Campbell, of Everett, also is new to helping out at the resource center. She was 68, a hiker and a nurse for 40 years when she was diagnosed with lung and breast cancer.
Over the course of a year, she had 110 medical appointments. Surgeons removed her left lung. She finished chemotherapy in October 2014.
She can share her encouraging story with others and explain how medical breakthroughs are offering hope that once did not exist.
“I always looked at cancer as a death sentence and then I went through it,” she said. “We are so lucky to be here at this point in time.”
Margaret Miner, of Everett, has been a volunteer for eight years and was one of the first patients at the cancer center.
Miner was diagnosed with stage 3 pancreatic cancer in February 2007. After an unsuccessful surgery, she was the first patient to use the center’s TomoTherapy machine for radiation treatment. A month later, her cancer was in remission, defying enormous odds. The one-year survival rate is 20 percent and five-year survival rate is 7 percent, according to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.
On that Tuesday morning in October, a patient on the 10th floor of the hospital requested to see her.
She visits a lot of people and calls it conversational therapy.
“I was diagnosed when I was 69,” she said. “I didn’t think I would see my 70th birthday.”
She celebrated her 80th birthday earlier this month.
Diane Illi, of Mukilteo, nodded as other volunteers shared their stories.
She was living alone in Oregon when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma a few years back. She lived by herself and felt quite alone.
She doesn’t want others to endure in silence. That’s what brought her to the resource center.
“When we have been given the gift of life, there is a feeling, a driving force, to give back in some way,” she said.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The American Cancer Society has several ways to volunteer in Snohomish County.
Here are a few:
Road to Recovery: Volunteer to drive patients to and from treatment.
Look Good… Feel Better: Cosmetologists volunteer to provide free classes for cancer patients.
Reach to Recovery: Breast cancer survivors pair up with newly diagnosed cancer patients and offer peer-to-peer support.
Cancer Resource Centers: In Everett and Edmonds, volunteers provide cancer patients with information and access to resources.