Celebrating 20 years of Gilda’s Club: A Message from Founder Joanna Bull

June 5, 2015

How wonderful it is to celebrate twenty years of Gilda’s Club being here for people with cancer and their families and friends! I vividly remember when Gene Wilder, Joel Siegel, Mandy Patinkin and I met in a huddle of determination to see that no one should ever feel alone while living with cancer.  We were devoted to the belief that the spirit of friendship and all things possible that Gilda Radner expressed in her book “It’s Always Something,” should and could be perpetuated with the club that we named for her. “An elite club I’d rather not belong to,” she told us, and it’s true: who would ask to belong? But we created a place where people living with cancer would feel entirely at ease at their home away from home, facing the unknowns that come with illness while being there for one another and creating a unique support community as they gave support and received it—together.

Nostalgia brings to mind the past, and I remember as I look at these twenty years, how it all came to pass. I was at a desert retreat in Southern California with a bunch of psychotherapists, health care workers, artists and spiritual seekers (quite a disparate group!) when I connected with a therapist who was putting together an innovative meeting place for people with cancer and looking for someone to run the “clinic” in this new, non-hospital group therapy setting. In those days, the late seventies, spiritual focus was a therapeutic alternative to the suffering of the world, so the fact that I had spent some time in a Zen monastery with Suzuki Roshi and was working on a degree in psychology instantly qualified me. I jumped into the deep end, into unknowns, into new ways, with no regrets.

After twenty years during which we’ve made clear impact in the understanding of the importance of social and emotional support for illness, there is nothing more present now for me than a sense of privilege and gratitude. Privilege to have been a part of this movement, which has defined in prescient particulars what modern psycho-oncology tells us is what matters; and gratitude to be a part of it still, as consultant to Cancer Support Community, the outcome of a merger with Gilda’s Club that has led to this umbrella network of cancer support committed to social and emotional support as an integral part of cancer care.

As for gratitude, it’s not just inexpressibly meaningful to me the fact that thousands of people living with cancer – families and caring friends as well as those in treatment, now and chronically – continue to create after all these years support communities that they celebrate as they live with illness in the family or create family in their many local support communities. To me, it’s that the Gilda’s Club mission continues to thrive: that of caring for one another, utilizing its program of structuring what’s personally needed, extending the invitation to others who care, and respecting the wisdom of direct experience that makes being there for one another the deepest path of being alive together in adversity. It’s what we’re here for.