Ellen McGrath attended her first meeting of the Red Door Readers book club at Gilda’s Club Western New York, a support group for people living with cancer, in September 2005. At the time, she was undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer and had already endured lumpectomy surgery and chemotherapy. It had been a long year for Ellen, to put it mildly.
In August, at a meeting for new members of Gilda’s Club, she learned about the book club and was thrilled. Ellen had always wanted to join a book group, but kept thinking she would do it when she had more time to read, but things never seemed to slow down!
The combination of her cancer diagnosis/treatment and the coincidental discovery of the book club were too much for Ellen to ignore. Facing up to cancer had made her realize that life was too short to postpone activities that she really wanted to pursue. It all seemed to fall in to place for her at the moment she discovered the book club at Gilda’s Club.
The book club had only started a few months earlier, since Gilda’s Club Western New York had first opened its doors in November 2004. But there was already a small core of faithful book club devotees. Although it was strange for Ellen to go to her first meeting without knowing a single other person, she was pleasantly surprised to find those in attendance completely welcoming.
Not knowing anyone in the group also turned out to be very liberating. The other members had no preconceived notions about Ellen, and because of this, their focus fell naturally on the book at hand and on the joy of reading. Cancer was almost never part of the book club’s discussions. For those who are cancer survivors, letting that bond remain unspoken worked out well. On occasion, group members would share information about their cancer treatments before and after the meetings, but the book was the reason they were all there and it always took center stage. To Ellen, “the book club was an affirmation of the fact that we were not our cancers.”
While in the throes of intense treatment, Ellen often felt like the cancer had taken over and pushed the “regular Ellen” aside. Drained by fatigue, “regular Ellen” seemed like a distant memory, but with activities, such as the book club, Ellen was able to find signs of her old self again, and tap into the non-cancer part of her life. Reading books had always been a passion, but only after cancer did she really see and feel its benefits.
Meeting at Gilda’s Club provided a safe and neutral setting to the Red Door Readers with all the amenities of home. The group met in a cozy room that had a sofa and chairs, a coffee table, a fireplace, a piano, and plenty of pillows and blankets. To Ellen, this space meant so much more, as it became the location she was finally able to rediscover herself.