So Many Stars

Published in Metro Society magazine, October – November 2008

It’s hard to imagine that the handsome man in front of me, with his firm handshake and ready smile, has gone through more loss and death in a few years than one should have in a lifetime. “2003 to 2005, those were difficult years,” he shares. His name is Robert “Bobbit” Suntay, a man with a degree in education – both academic and real. “My wife, father and father-in-law were all diagnosed with cancer within six months of each other. They all died within a year of each other.” Despite, and because of, his experience with loved ones taken by cancer, Carewell was created.

The Cancer Resource and Wellness (Carewell) Community was founded by Bobbit and his late wife, Jackie in 2005. It was fully operational by 2007. They took their inspiration from The Wellness Community (TWC), an international, community-based psychosocial support organization in the US. At the moment, Carewell is currently the only International Affiliate of TWC in Southeast Asia. Like TWC, they provide free resources, support and various services to people and their loved ones who are living with cancer. This foundation is nonprofit. They only have one paid employee, an office secretary, and the rest of the staff and key members are all volunteers.

The resources and services vary. There’s a Library and Resource Center with materials from their partners abroad (such as the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the American Cancer Society). On their shelves are books that range from Philip Yancey’s Where is God When it Hurts? to Italo Calvino’s Numbers in the Dark.  They provide support groups, counseling and medical consultation, international referral programs, wellness activities, and facilities for meetings and workshops at the S & L Building in Makati, where their office and resource center is located.

“Our flagship program is the support groups. That’s what a lot of people really look for,” Bobbit states. Carewell runs support groups in various venues, from the café in the building their office is located at, to hospitals such as Veteran’s and Asian. Aside from the lovely Carebelles, the women’s support group, there is also something for the men. “We have the Husband’s Happy Hour. You can’t call it a support group because the husbands don’t like it,” He jokingly warns.

As a husband who cared for someone with cancer, Bobbit knows how difficult it can be, and wanted to offer the same support he received to other men. “We started advertising it as the husband’s support group. No one ever showed up.” So they began to call it the ‘Happy Hour’, complete with free beer and pika-pika. That’s when the men showed up.  “I thought these guys would come, drink and talk about basketball, or something. But then they actually talked about the experiences of caring for their wives.” They also have mixed groups where spouses, caregivers, other family members and doctors can come together to discuss, share and reflect on the illness that has changed their lives so dramatically.

Carewell also hosts a number of annual events to bring the community together and raise awareness. This October, they will be celebrating a benefit concert, the Carewell Star Night. It will be held on October 2, from 6 – 9 pm at the Manila Polo Club. “When someone is ill with cancer, the spotlight is on the person who has the disease. But cancer isn’t a disease that affects only one person. Everyone is drawn into the cancer journey. Those relegated to the sidelines, despite being very much part of this journey, are the caregivers and family members; there’s also the best friend who brings them to chemo, and the office colleague who drives them to work. These are the people who help someone with cancer continue living their life. We wanted to do something for them too.”

14 cancer survivors were selected; men and women, old and young, all with different cancers and at different stages. They were asked: Who is your star? Who walked alongside you every step of your cancer journey, when you were at your worst, sickest, and most desperate? The answers varied from husbands to best friends, and the Carewell Star Night is dedicated to all of them.

The main part of the event will be a fusion of photographs, music and videos. Photographer Wig Tysmans shot portraits of the cancer survivors and their respective stars, while renowned cinematographer and cancer survivor Marilou Diaz-Abaya, made videos of the stars and the survivors who chose to honor them. Bobbit explains that, “We’re going to present these to our greater cancer community and say that while we know that the people who really need attention are the ones with cancer, we’d also like to acknowledge and recognize these people who’ve faithfully stood by them every step of the way.” About 500 people are expected to attend, and light dinner and cocktails will be served. “The second part will be fun too. We got Ryan Cayabyab and the RCS Singers to do a show.” They also plan to launch the Carewell Hub Project, a comprehensive development plan that aims to link a network of individuals, organizations, resources, programs and activities for the Philippine cancer community.

Before leaving Carewell, our photographer points to a felt paper doll taped to the bookshelf. “I’m seeing this everywhere,” he comments. It’s a smiling girl with her hands raised up, wearing a bandana, red shirt, black pants and boots. “Ah, that’s our logo. Here, I’ll show you how it came about.” Bobbit goes into his office and comes out with a framed photograph of a smiling woman on a beach, with her hands up in the air. “This is a photo of my late wife.” He explains how she was about to undergo very sensitive surgery while in the US East Coast, and the day before the procedure they went to one of her favorite spots, Crane Beach. “That’s where the picture was taken. As you can see, she was still pretty upbeat.” Jackie’s younger sister Lara conceptualized the logo from a self-portrait that Jackie had done, based on that photo. “So Jackie became our Carewell girl.” He looks at her picture fondly. After that, we say goodbye and Bobbit continues a busy day of interviews and coordination.

I wonder about Jackie, Bobbit, the Carebelles and the husbands who meet in the midst of pain and chemotherapy, but could still laugh, go to events and enjoy long weekends. “Try to find humor wherever you can, because laughter always helps.” Bobbit said. If there’s anything I want to keep with me from that brief visit, it’s the strength and steadfast hope that the Carewell community seem to embody as they continue to expand, stretch their arms skyward, and smile.

 

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