When Joan Katz was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982 at the age of 30, the first of four different cancer diagnoses she would endure in her life, she was confused and discouraged.
“It felt like I was in a snow globe and all the pieces of my life were shaken up and falling all around me,” she said.
Her twin sister Janet Holliday, along with family and friends, stood by her side through it all — the treatments, the uncertainty — and when Holliday was diagnosed a year ago with breast cancer, 33 years after Katz’s initial diagnosis, she was relieved she had her twin sister, someone experienced and supportive, to lean on.
“I hurt for her all those years and I respected her,” Holliday said. “We’ve grown even stronger because she’s been able to understand what I’m feeling without even having a conversation.”
On Friday, the identical twin sisters had that conversation with 500 guests at the 6th annual ThriveWell Cancer Foundation Luncheon, when they shared their unique cancer journeys and eventual recoveries as the afternoon’s keynote speakers.
ThriveWell, a local nonprofit organization that provides services for former and current San Antonio cancer patients and raises money for cancer research, hosts its annual luncheon as its biggest fundraiser for the aid it provides the community.
At this year’s luncheon, Katz and Holliday brought the audience to tears and bouts of laughter with their story.
Through fertility issues, major surgeries, and everything in between, cancer always seemed to creep in the twins’ lives, first infecting Katz and later their mother, a breast cancer survivor, their father, prostate and kidney cancer survivor, and eventually Holliday.
Of all the ups and downs the sisters experienced through their treatment journeys, having a support system was key to their recoveries, both said on Friday before the luncheon. Oftentimes newly-diagnosed patients have no idea what comes next, like what doctor to call or what questions to ask. Even Holliday, who had helped her twin sister overcome cancer four different times, felt lost when she was told she had breast cancer.
“I was just struck by the feeling that here I had all the resources and it was still so daunting, so I thought, ‘what about the people who don’t have the resources?’,” she said.
While the resources needed for cancer treatment are varied, it’s the financial burden that can often weigh most heavy on a patient and their families — cancer patients are hit with some of the highest medical costs. Even those with medical insurance still pay thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket fees for things like diagnostic testing that quickly add up. And not everyone, Holliday said, can keep up.
“There are people everyday that know they have cancer but are having to choose between buying groceries for their family or going to treatment,” she said.
But enduring cancer treatment requires more than financial stability. Lack of transportation to and from treatment, nutritional education, and emotional support are just some of the things that can often delay someone’s recovery or leave them feeling hopeless. That’s where ThriveWell comes in.
One of the main goals of the organization is to help take care of some of the patients’ needs so that they can focus on getting well. The organization has assisted patients of all socioeconomic levels, all over the city, with their free programs.
ThriveWell’s DIVA — Deriving Inspiration and Vitality Through Activity — Program provides exercise, nutrition, and other healing programs for cancer patients and survivors. The program operates in five different locations around the city, offering more than 30 different exercise classes a week.
Their Patient Assistance program gives financial and transportation assistance to eligible adult cancer patients who are undergoing treatment. ThriveWell helps pay patient’s bills, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and anything else related to their treatment.
For Erin Ercoline, ThriveWell’s executive director, the local aspect of the nonprofit is what makes cancer recovery more tangible for the greater San Antonio community.
“Every penny raised here stays here, so everything we bring in goes straight back to the community to help to keep people alive essentially, right here in San Antonio,” Ercoline said.
The nonprofit also funds cancer research, a key component to advancing treatment options and their effectiveness.
From her first diagnosis more than 30 years ago to her most recent one, Katz has watched the medical community transform. She once had 26 lymph nodes removed from her body for testing to confirm she was cancer free, while advancement in testing practices only required her sister to have one removed.
“There has been so much progress made from 33 years ago to now,” she said. “From treatments to diagnostic information, there’s so much hope. You don’t get that perspective until you look backwards.”
Still, more advancements in the medical community, like communication between health care providers and patients, are necessary, Katz added.
“Communication about what’s available is still a huge need,” she said. “I don’t think the services are missing, in every city we just need to do a better job of connecting the services with the patient.”
Katz and Holliday are both active in cancer organizations in their respective communities. Katz is involved with the Joan Katz Breast Center in Fort Worth, a treatment center named for her, and Holliday serves as a ThriveWell board member in San Antonio.
It’s organizations like ThriveWell, Holliday said, that offer hope to hopeless, and empower them in the taxing fight against cancer.
“We can’t cure cancer yet, but we sure can cure the loneliness for people and we can offer them support at the time that they need it the most,” Holliday said.
*Top image: Janet Holliday (left) and Joan Katz (right), twin sisters, spoke about the struggles they faced in battling cancer. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone