St. Agnes steps up to support breast cancer patients

The ladies of the Stepping Stones Breast Cancer Support Group at St. Agnes Hospital are as different as the varying stages of cancer they are living through, but they do share one important mantra: it’s better to be laughing than crying. On Oct. 6, that saying rang true as the group participated in its first-ever Healing through the Arts workshop.

Artist Mary Cloonan from Baltimore Clay Works led the group of about a dozen in pounding, shaping, stamping and painting chunks of clay to transform them into cake plates and sundae bowls. The result: maybe not the most perfect pottery, but the perfect release from the burdens brought on by cancer.

Cloonan, whose mother is a breast cancer survivor and who has a colleague who was recently diagnosed, said, “It’s really important for me to be here tonight. My goal for the night is to have them laugh. And after we squish and push all the clay, by the end, they’ll have something that will be permanent.”

“This is the first time we’ve tried a Healing through the Arts program at St. Agnes, and we decided to launch it here with Stepping Stones,” said Jennifer Broaddus, a clinical social worker, who along with certified breast nurse navigator Mary Ellen Bilenki, started Stepping Stones in 2007 as a way to help women cope with their cancer diagnosis, share feelings and experiences, and most importantly, give and receive encouragement and support.

“People can experience healing through different artistic modalities. There is a lot of research that shows that different styles of healthy coping mechanisms are beneficial for survivorship,” said Broaddus.

“We have women who participate in all stages of treatment, from the newly diagnosed to a five-year survivor. It’s nice to have a mix of women to mentor one another and support one another,” she said. “It’s their stories and shared experiences that bring comfort and peace to a lot of our members. And of course, we laugh a lot.”

Stepping Stones meets on the first Thursday of every month from 6:30 p.m-8 p.m. at the St. Agnes Cancer Institute Lobby. Broaddus also runs a kids camp and a teen camp for children whose parent or family member has been diagnosed with cancer, and she is currently in the process of forming a survivorship program at St. Agnes for patients who have gone through all types of cancer.

Broaddus emphasizes that while the women can offer up personal stories of their treatment, there should not be direct advice on what one should or should not do in a particular situation. “This is their own personal journey. We’re here to listen and lend support,” she said.

In between the giggles of the ladies who showed off their handiwork, some became serious, discussing their latest drug treatments, rounds of chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery. They took turns asking how each member was doing, offering up frequent hugs and words of encouragement.

“It’s good to get their mind off things, to have them work with their hands,” said Bilenki. “If they weren’t doing this, if they weren’t having a good time, we would be seeing a lot of tears. This is so much nicer.”

Upcoming Healing through the Arts programs include Watercolors on Oct. 23; a Night of Music at University of Maryland, Baltimore County on Nov. 15; and a Drumming Circle on Dec. 7. All programs are free and open to the community.

For more information about Stepping Stones, call 410-368-2970.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.