The bustle of mid-morning activity in Center City — car horns, the rush of traffic along I-76, crowded intersections — faded quickly in the rearview mirror of my taxi as we entered West Fairmount Park and made our way down Chamounix Drive, near the Please Touch Museum.
The transition happens so fast — from cityscape to the heavily wooded (and oft overgrown) park roads — it’s rather unarming, in an entirely good way.
As we turn down the long driveway of the Cancer Support Community, the historic mansion the organization calls home comes into view.
The building appears homey and inviting, its pleasant yellow walls shirking any hints of pretention. This is a home in every sense of the word.
The inside is no different.
It’s cozy. There are carpets on the dark wood floors, coffee brewing in the kitchen, and furniture that is actually used.
I am here to meet Kelly Harris, CEO of CSC of Philadelphia.
Harris has the arduous task of steering the once-grassroots Cancer Support Center, which has since grown into a conglomerate support network with locations throughout the Delaware Valley.
CSC Philadelphia was once two organizations: the local branch of the Wellness Community and the local branch of Gilda’s Club in Warminster; both organizations provided similar cancer-support services and were part of large national networks.
After the two organizations began merging across the country, the Philly locations followed suit in 2013.
Harris started with Gilda’s Club in 2002, became its CEO in 2010, oversaw the merger last year and has helmed CSC since then.
We met in her office and were joined by Beth Starrantino, director of marketing and individual giving and Harris’ right-hand woman.
Harris has set aside a couple hours for us to talk and lunch. So during our conversation she deflects incoming calls and buzz-ins from her assistant, a nice change of pace from the small “fires” she says she is always putting out.
“We provide dozens of programs to our ‘members’ on a weekly basis, for free. Free is not cheap,” she jokes. “My staff and I, though small in number, work around the clock to keep the funding coming in for these programs. It’s not a done deal by any means.”
Harris also manages the program directors for CSC’s five area locations in Philadelphia, Warminster, Abington, Doylestown and Langhorne.
“There are support groups for almost every different type of cancer. We also do yoga, pilates, we have a dragon boat group that paddles on the Schuylkill, nutrition, arts — you name it, we have it. And if we don’t, we’ll create one.”
Some of the programs are run by volunteers, other facilitators are compensated — all have the highest level of certification and training in their fields. Some of the volunteers have been with the organization since it opened as Gilda’s Club 10 years ago.
In total, the organization provides more than 150 programs each month.
The most popular classes at the Philly location are the support groups.
And it was through one such support group that Harris first came into contact with the center.
Harris was diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia in the fall of 1997.
At first, she had no idea the symptoms she was experiencing were related to the cancer.
“I would get nosebleeds regularly, and I felt sick, but I had no idea I was that sick,” Harris said. “My doctor wanted to rule out malaria — I had made recent trips to South America and China — so he did blood tests. The results weren’t good. So they sent me to an oncologist.”
Shortly thereafter, Harris received the bad news.
“I can remember asking my oncologist and asking her, like, ‘What am I even doing here?’ and she said, ‘You have cancer, you need to be hospitalized immediately.’”
Harris was hospitalized at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania immediately.
She underwent several rounds of chemotherapy during the month of October. She was cleared to go home afterwards, but was brought back to the hospital just a few short months later, in January, at which point the doctors told her she would need a bone-marrow transplant to survive.
Harris’s brother Justin — now deceased — was a match, and came down from his home in Connecticut for the transplant.
Harris said she fondly remembers her brother — a plumber by trade — telling her after the transplant that “now I would be able to fix my own leaky faucet.”
After having her immune system completely broken down for the transplant, Harris was in near-total physical isolation for months afterwards while she recovered.
“That’s when it really got to me,” she said, “I remember thinking my life was over, not because I feared I would slip into remission, but because my career as I knew it was gone. I had been working hard for years, and now felt like I had slid back down the career ladder.”
Harris had worked for 10 years in different social work-related fields including outpatient mental health, people with disabilities and social casework.
After feeling like her career was limited by a lack of a graduate degree, she went back to school in 1989 and got her master’s in clinical social work and social policy development from Bryn Mawr College.
She continued to work in outpatient services for a while, but didn’t really care for it.
So she quit her job and soon applied to a position with the Department of Defense, placing special-needs children with military families.
She got the job and worked her way up over the next 10 years to director, the position she was in when she received the cancer diagnosis.
“I was 37 and I looked around and saw many of my friends get married and have kids and have successful careers and here I was — I had been on a really good career track — and my life had just literally stopped.”
Her sense of hopelessness was in part alleviated when she began attending the cancer support group at the Wellness Community with her partner at the time.
“I first went when I was healthy enough to leave the hospital when I was first in remission — then again in the spring — and I went once a week,” she said. “After being in isolation for so long, I can’t describe how good it felt to be in the company of other people who had undergone the same thing, and get all the little pieces of advice from others in the group. I mean, just to talk to someone whose hair is falling out as well.”
The common, shared knowledge she picked up from attending the weekly meetings proved invaluable.
“You know you get nausea and the doctors are going to give you a pill for it, but you are going to get nasty side effects just from the pill, but if you talk to someone they’ll tell you, ‘Oh, I tried this, and it worked for me.’”
As if the cancer and recovery period were not enough, Harris received a letter from her disability-insurance company telling her that she had to be back in work in three months.
Harris remembered that she was sick in bed on her 40th birthday when she received the letter.
“I thought, I have no clue how I am going to do this, I can’t even get out of bed right now — I have a 105-degree fever,” she said.
But looking back, Harris thinks it was one of the best things that could have happened to her.
She was unable to return to her work in the adoption field because she could no longer travel internationally.
Thus, she was forced to start from scratch again.
“I had to reinvent myself,” Harris said.
She got a job working partly for the City of Philadelphia and partly for some private agencies doing follow-up on kids who had been adopted and providing support groups and resources.
“It was good, meaningful work [with the city] but I was crawling around on the floor with the kids. I thought, this just isn’t for me,” Harris said.
Then she saw an ad in the Inquirer that a small start-up cancer-support organization was looking for a program director.
“They had already selected a candidate for the position, but when they saw my résumé, I got a call from then-executive director Linda Goodwin, who asked me, ‘How soon can you come in for an interview?’”
Harris started three weeks later.
When she first came on board at Gilda’s Club in 2002, “we had no members,” Harris said. “They handed me a shoebox with the names of people who were interested scribbled on little pieces of paper.”
Over the years, Harris worked with the national Gilda’s Club organization to develop programs and execute a marketing plan.
She became CEO in 2010.
Shortly after began the talks of merging Gilda’s Club with Wellness Community.
The new organization reopened in 2013 as the Cancer Support Community in Fairmount Park.
“We were doing the same thing in the same market. Funding was getting difficult for the same events and people. It just made more sense to merge. Now were are one organization with five locations.
Harris’ climb back to the top, her resilience, is in part a product of the fortitude she developed growing up and living her formative years in a less-than-accepting society as a lesbian.
“My mom always said she knew I was gay. I used to play baseball with the boys, hated wearing dresses and of course I just had to have a pair of black high-top sneakers called PF Flyers.”
Harris feels fortunate to have had such an understanding mother.
But it was when she was an undergrad at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, working on a psychology degree that she really came to terms with her sexuality.
“I did the whole ‘Oh, I like this boy and I like that boy’ thing, but when I got to college and started going out to some of the gay bars, I said, ‘OK, this is real, this is me.’”
Harris recalled it was not easy being gay in Philadelphia in the ’70s.
“A lot of the bars were private clubs you would have to join, like Mamzelles. You would buy a membership card. But it was for our protection,” Harris said. “It was not uncommon to have police outside harassing you as you left. There were raids where they came in and everyone had to lie down on the floor. We developed this buddy system so no one would have to walk to their car alone.”
For Harris, the fear was very much a reality.
“I remember vividly that fear, or caution that we had to live with in those days. You could never walk down the street holding someone’s hand. It wasn’t safe.”
According to Harris, the environment started to improve in the ’80s, but she still had to deal with unaccepting straight friends.
“I saw all my friends getting married, girl college friends. That was a real process. First when they found out I was gay, they weren’t very accepting. It was the early ’80s and they were like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
But those attitudes have since evolved.
“They say to me now, ‘I’m sorry we left you hanging like that back then.’ Now it’s no problem.”
She went through a similar experience with her parents when she came out to them.
“My parents always kind of thought that I was gay. They had a hard time initially. But more than that, they had a hard time with some of the questionable characters I went out with. But as time went on, family is family.”
And it is family — both her kin, and the family she made at CSC — that has proven and continues to be an integral part of her recovery and life afterwards.
“My parents and my brother are deceased, but I’ve got my older sister, Lisa. And I have so many nieces and nephews now that are a regular part of my life — and the fact that I’m gay doesn’t even cross their minds.”
“Oh, and I have my two dogs,” she added jokingly.
Mica, a golden retriever, and Teddy, an Australian cattle dog, keep her company at her home in Landsdale.
As a result of the chemo at 37, Harris was not able to have children.
“The clock doesn’t stop ticking for any woman — gay or straight. I think about it every once in a while, but not very often. Maybe if I hadn’t gotten sick. But I’m happy with the family I have now,” she said.
Looking ahead, 2015 promises to be a challenging but rewarding time for CSC.
Starting in the New Year, hospitals will be required to provide support groups for in-treatment cancer patients.
“We are partnered with several hospitals in the area now. We developed a simple fee-for-service agreement that actually saves the hospitals a ton of money.”
“We’re the experts in this field,” Harris added. “Physicians are already referring patients to us, but we hope 2015 will open even more doors for us with other hospitals, and allow us to reach even more people.”
Another goal of Harris’ is to expand CSC’s youth program.
“There is a tremendous need and want for it,” she said, “so we’re listening to our members and working on growing what we already offer.”
Research has proven that the type of support CSC provides is highly effective.
It has been credited with reducing recurrence and helping patients adhere to their treatment plans.
“The research says when people get social and emotional support from others that have gone through the same situation, their quality of life is better, regardless of the outcome,” Harris said.
On any given day, you can find members cooking in the kitchen, reading a book in the library, watching a movie or socializing outside on the beautiful grounds — laughing, living.
“A community outside of your community” is what Harris calls that intangible quality that makes CSC unique. “Not everyone will survive the cancer, but the people who come here and receive the support, their lives are better. We laugh a lot here.”