Gilda’s Club: A Living Legacy

Posted on: September 2nd, 2016 by
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I was saddened to hear about Gene Wilder’s death this week. For years, he and his wife Gilda Radner filled my heart and the hearts of many with laughter. I was devastated when Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989. However, Wilder helped provide a living legacy, one that has inextricably bound me to the comedic couple: Gilda’s Club.

***

I was a cancer refugee.

I already had breast cancer — no way to run from that mess — but I was seeking refuge from its emotional toll.

I got what I was seeking at Gilda’s Club.

Living in Chicago, I was lucky to have a Gilda’s Club in my hometown. This organization offers a safe haven that provides free support and programming for anyone touched by cancer and their loved ones — friends and/or family. Such programming ranges from yoga, writing therapy classes, art classes, cooking classes, and a Christmas party with Santa Claus for the children.

At first I was hesitant to go all by myself, but I was urged by my aunt, a breast cancer survivor who attended Gilda’s Club in New York during her diagnosis and treatment. Each time I called her sobbing hysterically about cancer, she listened and offered warm support. And then she ended our conversation the way she always ended it: “Go to Gilda’s Club.”

I was terribly shy and didn’t want to go by myself. But the walls of despair and terror were suffocating me, and I needed more support than long-distance phone calls could provide me.

One day, I was downtown standing alone at the famous red door, the entryway to the physical building that houses Gilda’s Club. I had made an appointment with an intake worker, so she was expecting me. My heart was pounding as I rang the doorbell.

The door opened to a friendly receptionist’s face and a beautiful, well-lit interior. The welcoming intake worker gave me a tour of the many appealing rooms — there was a gorgeous kitchen, a reading room, general relaxation spaces, and an elevator to all three stories, for which my chemo-weary legs were grateful. The interior of Gilda’s Club was really a house — no, a home — offering a safe haven to people touched by cancer, their friends, and families.

The intake worker took all my information, and I received a membership card to a club that, like cancer, I never wanted to join. A part of me was still skeptical that Gilda’s Club could ease my constant emotional torment and fear.

“Every other Tuesday we have a chef teach our members how to cook a dish,” the intake worker told me enthusiastically. “It’s one of our more popular activities. You are invited to come today.”

I had nowhere comforting to go, so despite my skepticism, I decided to stay and check it out.

That evening I and a bunch of people I didn’t know saw a cooking demonstration and got to taste a dish of salmon and green-tomato ginger jam. Prior to my visit to Gilda’s Club, I had so much trouble eating, but for some reason, this dish was palatable to me. We all applauded the chef’s talent, asked questions, and got the recipe. I got to talk to several other cancer patients while we ate our communal feast.

I no longer felt alone.

And during the two hours of cooking and eating and asking questions, I felt the warmth, power, salvation, and magic that is Gilda’s Club. That evening cancer did not exist for me. I actually forgot I was ill. Joy and laughter were everywhere, and I fell in love with Gilda’s Club, a club that, it turns out, I was glad I joined after all.

I came to Gilda’s Club regularly for support. I always loved cooking, so I tried not to miss the chefs’ demonstrations, and I participated in writing classes, yoga, and a variety of other fun activities. Doctors would come to this haven to discuss various health/cancer issues. I got educated and met so many people in this welcoming environment.

And this safe space was the place where my emotional healing began.

Gene Wilder, Rest in Peace. You have helped many people through Gilda’s Club.

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Have you ever gone to Gilda’s Club?

Does your hometown have a Gilda’s Club nearby?

If applicable, how have you found solace in your diagnosis and beyond?


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6 Responses to Gilda’s Club: A Living Legacy

  1. Kathi had this to say about that:

    How fortunate that you had a Gilda’s Club chapter right in Chicago! I loved Gilda and I loved her book, “It’s Always Something.” I reread it after I was diagnosed. A lot of people don’t know or perhaps forgot that Gene Wilder himself also went through treatment for Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. They’ve left us quite a legacy, in more ways than one. xoxo, Kathi

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Kathi, yes, it was a stroke of luck that a Gilda’s Club was here in my hometown. Gilda was so damn funny. I miss the old Saturday Night Live skits. I read her book, too, though a long time ago.

      Thanks for the reminder that Gene Wilder had cancer. This is really an important fact.

  2. Rebecca had this to say about that:

    Beth, I have heard of this organization but never joined. I wish I had. I’ve heard great things about it. You know, maybe I will pay a visit one day soon.

    At the beginning of my dx I felt shy too and only joined online groups. Then later, I joined a support group at my hospital, which I admit, felt really cold. We all sat on a roundtable and discussed all kinds of different topics. We were all on different stages of our cancer mess. Somehow I was scared to be there so I never came back. I made one friend who I still talk to today (and she just had her first child after BC!). I am grateful for that.

    I enjoyed some of Gene’s movies. Just recently I saw Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Both movies make me laugh so much. Great acting and sense of humor (and excellent directing too).

    We’ve lost a lot of great ones recently. And despite knowing they’ve lived long lives, it’s still difficult to accept mortality. Sigh.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with Gilda’s Club. xoxo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Rebecca,

      Yes, support groups can be good, but some in-person groups are not helpful. I’ve dealt with people who saw fit to be overbearing to me. Dealing with difficult personalities is not helpful when one is going through a medical crisis.

      I was actually visiting my aunt during the mess that is cancer, and we visited the Gilda’s Club in NYC and had a good time. It’s really difficult to walk in on one’s own.

      It’s not too late to pop in and visit if ever you should want to.

  3. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    This is such a wonderful post. It’s terrific you felt so supported when you decided to go to Gilda’s Club. Since I no longer live in a large city, there is no such place near me that I am aware of. Do you ever go back? No one has ever been quite as funny on Saturday Night Live as Gilda Radner was. She really was one of a kind. As was Gene Wilder. I didn’t realize she had a book. Another one to add to my growing list of to-read books. And I didn’t know about Gene Wilder’s cancer either. Look what I learned by reading your post and the comments! Thank you.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thanks for your comment, Nancy. I agree that Radner was one of a kind; her characters on Saturday Night Live were the best. Her book is excellent.

      I haven’t been back to Gilda’s Club in years. I treasure this organization, though, and plan to donate.

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