Daytona Beach, Fl. – For many women dealing with a cancer diagnosis, the news can, of course, be overwhelming.
Charlene’s Dream in Daytona Beach aims to help those women through their journey.
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The cancer support center offers everything from group therapy to prosthetics and wigs. It’s all free.
Cindy Thornton started the center in memory of her friend Charlene Brady, a cancer nurse navigator, who saw a need for support beyond the doctors office.
“Our mission is to turn tears into smiles and fear into hope,” Cindy Thornton explained. “So often women will come in just really fearful, really scared and they’ll often leave and say you know you’ve given me new hope.”
Thornton and Brady were both nurse navigators. Navigators attend appointments with patients and help explain treatments.
It was then, the two realized there was a gap between what doctors had time to discus in a clinical setting and what patients wanted beyond just getting physically healthy.
“I think what we saw was a lack of services that were needed for women to make their journey easier. There was a limit time-wise with providers, the doctors and nurses. We saw merchandise that was available but there wasn’t time for those professionals to share that or talk about it.”
The two told themselves one day they would have the time to do it themselves.
“And we had been talking someday, someday when we retire, we’re gonna fill that dream,” Thornton remembered. “And when she got sick, it was like that extra push. Those of us that had shared this dream with her said we need to do it. And we need to do it now.”
Brady died from pancreatic cancer in 2015.
“We’ve been here five years now and physicians are finally understanding who we are and what we do and they are sending patients,” Thornton said.
To help those patients feel at home, Thornton designed the center to feel like a living room in a tiny cottage.
“It makes people feel really comfortable,” Thornton said. “We sit in front of the fireplace, we have these comfortable chairs and people just exhale.”
The space, with whitewashed walls, a tall ceiling and exposed wood beams is decorated in splashes of pink. Jewelry, blankets, hats and clothing feel right at home next to wigs, horseshoe pillows, scarves, surgical camisoles and mastectomy bras.
Charlene’s Dream is located in an outbuilding of The Seabreeze United Church of Christ. The Mission Revival architecture of the building, built in 1929, helps create a unique experience.
Thornton and most of the other volunteers are also cancer survivors. She sees herself as an example that things will be OK.
“I think I’m a vision of the other side,” Thornton said as she leafed through a photo album her daughter made documenting her treatment. Photos of surgeries and wig fittings are side by side with motivational quotes and journal entries. “They see that I’m healthy now that I’m vibrant, that I went through all of this and I have an active lovely life right now.”
“We kind of know where the needs are from our own experience,” Thornton said. “It helps to see that there is another side to their journey, which can be scary. It’s like being at the top of a roller coaster and not knowing what’s going to happen.”
Janet Mallia said she was on that coaster last year.
“I went for a mammogram and they found it,” Mallia said. “They say early detection saves lives. We hear it all the time but until it affects you, you don’t realize how true it is.”
Mallia had two lumpectomies and 16 radiation treatments. She was feeling overwhelmed.
“I was lost emotionally. I didn’t know where my path was,” Mallia explained. " I didn’t feel like myself. Like I was outside my body watching my life go by.”
That was before she discovered Charlene’s Dream.
“They have anything you need there,” Mallia explained. “You can ask all the questions you have.”
Mallia found a brochure for the center in a stack of paperwork. After her visit she wanted more women to know about the resource. She nominated Thornton and Charlene’s Dream for the News 6 Getting Results Award.
“I felt like sending you an email to get the word out that there’s this place, if you’re struggling like I was, where you can go.”
“You go to the doctors office and they’re interested in saving you, making you better, giving you the rest of your life,” Mallia said. “They don’t focus on making you feel like a woman again making you feel normal and look good in your clothes.”
“Women feel a little lost in what life is going to look like. Will it be normal ever again?” Thornton said. “There’s a new normal but we’re able to help them discover that it can be fine.”
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