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Cancer Support Group Seeks Mutual Support

Dilsa Capdeville leads discussions on living with cancer at the Celestino White Senior Community Center on Saturday. (Source photo by Judi Shimel)

Memorial Day Weekend was a time for talk among cancer survivors on St. Thomas. The leader of a Saturday support group invited those who came to share their ideas about improving their quality of life and their chances of overcoming a deadly disease.

It was the fourth time We From Upstreet’s Health and Wellness Committee hosted its support group. At past meetings, they had heard from Schneider Regional Medical Center Director Tina Comissiong and St. Thomas-born cancer specialist Dr. J. Emanuel Hodge. They heard about the progress being made in creating a V.I. cancer registry and predictions for reopening the Charlotte Kimmelman Cancer Institute.

Cancer is considered the second-leading cause of death in the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the findings of a community health assessment released by the Health Department in 2020. Upstreet support group leader Dilsa Capdeville and others said it was time for those who need support to network and raise community awareness.

Saturday’s ideas also touched on whether mutual support can help the community better understand cancer, its causes and treatments. The Upstreet group is among a number of groups on St. Thomas and St. Croix offering information and advice to cancer patients.

Participants met in the day room at the Celestino White Senior Community Center in Sugar Estate.

“Our meetings usually have a guest speaker, but today we wanted to have an open discussion, and this discussion went way beyond what I was expecting,” Capdeville said.

Capdeville — a longtime social worker — spent some time sharing her story as a cancer survivor and how adopting a proactive approach to healthcare led her to help others. After returning from treatment on the U.S. mainland, she said she made her first attempt to form a group.

“We need to have a collective force dealing with this. I think what they could do is get more support and public awareness,” she said.

The eight participants attending Saturday spoke about the challenges of maintaining healthy diets and their exposure to pollutants. They also showed consensus on the things doctors told them are believed to cause cancer: overweight, lack of exercise, stressful lifestyles, and environmental exposure.

There were those, however, who had their doubts. “A lot of people don’t know where cancer comes from,” said group member Denise Torres-Hodge.

Others, like Norman Isaac, spoke of their experience where mutual support made a difference; he recalled the days when men on St. Thomas could share their stories about life with prostate cancer.

But men’s support groups had largely disappeared, Capdeville said; it would be good to bring them back. Others stressed the importance of having access to locally-grown produce to maintain better health.

Talking about the ways that environmental factors might be linked to cancer brought suggestions about how the group could find out more. Group member Celeste Benn-Ruan eagerly shared her research into available grant funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Participants bemoaned what they called a lack of attention from political leaders, but Capdeville said one lawmaker dropped in during a presentation by SRMC Director Tina Commissiong. Capdeville said Health, Hospitals and Human Services Committee Chair Ray Fonseca came and quietly sat down to listen.

The chairman later suggested inviting experts on cancer to testify before the committee, Capdeville said.

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