Three Cups of Tea at Candy’s Place

By Kitch & Tony Mussari
Copyright 2011
Mussari-Loftus Associates, LTD
The Face of America Project

Joy is not in things. It is in us. Richard Wagner

During our Face of America journey, Kitch and I survived a serious automobile accident in Minnesota, heat stroke in New Hampshire, road rage in Florida, a blizzard in Arizona, closed roads in Wyoming, and 3 computer meltdowns.

These are trivial events compared to what happened on December 9, 2010. On that day Kitch went for her annual mammogram. I was at home preparing for a screening of our documentary: Visiting Shanksville in the Rain. It was scheduled for December 10, in North Plainfield, New Jersey.

The telephone rang. The voice at the other end of the line cracked with emotion. I heard words that I never expected to hear. Kitch could not finish the call. That was done by the compassionate and competent voice of Dr. Dan Kopen.

Within minutes, I was in his office holding Kitch’s hand while Dr. Kopen explained the results of the mammogram and the need for a biopsy. In less than a week, we met with Dr. Kopen again.  This time he spoke three words that seared an indelible mark on my soul: “invasive ductal carcinoma.”

For the next 11 months, virtually all of our time, effort and energy was spent battling an adversary we could not see, hear, or feel.

Fast forward to the most beautiful Sunday of autumn, Kitch and I are making our way to the Grand Ballroom at the Woodlands Inn and Resort. We were welcomed graciously at the door by a board member and a volunteer from Candy’s Place. After a brief conversation we entered the ballroom. We were overwhelmed by what we saw.

Wherever we looked, someone dressed in something pink was smiling or laughing. People were engaged in good conversation. They were taking group pictures.  They were checking out the cornucopia of prizes donated by public spirited citizens to raise money for the one-on-one programs offered at the Center for Cancer Wellness.

Heather Gaydos, a high school student and volunteer, was selling homemade biscotti and cookies. Theresa Novak, the yoga instructor at Candy’s Place and two of her friends were carrying baskets filled with chocolate products courtesy of her store, Ah! Some Chocolates.

Penny Cunningham, the founder of Candy’s Place, was busy meeting and greeting people, and Nicole Farber, the center cirector, was attending to last minute details for the tea.

The atmosphere was welcoming and very festive.  The mood in the room was joyful, and the setting was beautiful in every respect of the word.

The beverage and sweets served at the tea were tastefully displayed and quickly removed by the room full of cancer survivors, family members and friends who came to show their support for Candy’s Place.

One by one, eight of these women walked to the podium in the front of the room to tell their stories about diagnosis, treatment and survival.

Rebecca Barrett was 37 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  She asked the question, “What has the gift of cancer given me?”

Her answer; “It made my family stronger. It made me stronger, and it made me closer to my family.”

Mary Ann Meeker is an affable woman.  She likes to talk. In 1996, she was 57 and enjoying life. She had no family history of breast cancer. These are the words she used to describe her reaction to the news that she had breast cancer. “It hit me like a ton of bricks.”

Carol Marino is a strong woman with a good sense of humor. She talked about the dark time between diagnosis, surgery and recovery. Even though she has been cancer free for 17 years, it is still an emotional experience for her. She celebrated the services provided by Candy’s Place and the friends she made there.  She offered this piece of advice to those who will be diagnosed with cancers of any kind. “You have to believe in hope. When it might seem darkest, you have to have hope.”

Stacey Casey attended the event with her husband. She admitted that she is a newcomer to the long gravel road called cancer. She thanked her husband for his loyalty and support and she made it very clear that she is learning every day that support from family and friends is vital to recovery.

Rhonda Zikowski spoke with honesty about the fear that comes with cancer, and she thanked Christine Fazzi the personal trainer at Candy’s Place for making her feel stronger. With sincerity that touched the hearts of everyone in the room she paid Chris the ultimate compliment, “You are always kind, generous and there for me.”

Jean Connelly is a decorated veteran in the war against cancer. She has successfully defeated two different forms of cancer. Jean is a woman of infectious humor and great resolve. She spoke with authority when she shared these words, “When they throw the “C” word at you, it hits home and knocked the wind out of my sails.”

Thinking out loud about what she learned from her experience, Jean offered this insight;
“I am a blessed person, because cancer taught me how to live, not to wait to be happy. It taught me to be happy today.”

For Beth Miner, 2007 was an Annus Horribilis. Her 40-year-old niece died from breast cancer.  Her neighbor died from breast cancer, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Beth had a very difficult time with chemotherapy, and she could not finish the infusion treatments, but fortunately things worked out well for her and her family.  Today she is a volunteer at Candy’s Place and a woman who has a special gift when working with other survivors.  Maybe that’s because when people walk through the door to Candy’s Place, Beth sees a mirror image of herself.

In Beth’s words, “When I meet a cancer survivor for the first time the feelings come back to me.  I don’t know why I am here, but I am standing strong.”

Mary Ann Gap was the last speaker. She is a positive and determined woman. Her story speaks to the heart and soul of Candy’s Place. When she was diagnosed at 50, she was alone.  Her family and friends lived out of state. She did not drive, and she was struggling.

Her radiation oncologist, Dr. Norman Schulman, connected her with Candy’s Place. When she made her first visit, Nicole Farber greeted her with a smile.  She arranged to have Denise Fried make a weekly call to Mary Ann. This call gave Mary Ann the gift of connection, and it helped her make a successful recovery.

Listening to these women and thinking about Kitch’s experience in her one-on-one yoga classes with Theresa Novak, makes it very clear to me that cancer is a vicious disease that can be beaten if detected early. But it takes a family to overcome the fears and the scars that come with the treatment and cure.

In my opinion, if you’re looking for love, go to Candy’s Place. If you’re looking for compassion, go to Candy’s Place, if you’re looking for understanding, go to Candy’s Place. At Candy’s Place you are family.

It was inspiring to be in the presence of a room full of heroines. No matter where you looked in the Grand Ballroom, you saw a heartwarming, thought provoking scene.  The words of Emily Dickinson took on new meaning for me, because these women had found ecstasy in life. For them, the mere sense of living was joy enough.

In a way, Kitch and I were having our third cup of tea at Candy’s Place. We were no longer strangers, or casual friends. Like everyone in the room, we were family, and it felt wonderful.

The moment Penny Cunningham won the door prize added to our delight. What a fitting and serendipitous end to a memorable afternoon.

It doesn’t get any better than an afternoon of pink tea at Candy’s Place.

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