A Place for Cancer Survivors to Find Hope...and Cheese

I was lucky to find a cancer resource center that offered support groups, free wigs and plenty more — including delicious luncheons for survivors and their families.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. My treatments were numerous; I had chemotherapy, radiation, a double mastectomy, the insertion of breast implants, the removal of those breast implants, and 10 years of tamoxifen therapy.

Then, when I thought I was out of the proverbial woods, I developed a secondary cancer on the right breast, the one that had been treated with radiation “therapy.” This was in 2016. To deal with this cancer, the doctor simply cut it out, and thank goodness the cancer, an angiosarcoma, hasn’t returned.

The first time I had cancer, I lost my hair due to numerous chemotherapy treatments. I needed some sort of head covering and opted for a wig. Luckily, my mother had heard of a cancer wellness center in our town of Akron, Ohio called Stewart’s Caring Place where they offered services of all kinds, including the donation of complimentary wigs.

We headed over to West Market Street to locate this unique place. Stewart’s, all 7,400 square feet of it, was situated in the lower-level of a small plaza. We had a little difficulty finding it, but when we located the facility, we went in and were instantly welcomed by friendly people. One of them was Jeannine Marks, the Executive Director of Stewart’s, who has since retired. I was escorted back to the wig room and fitted with a wig that day. And the wig was free!

I can’t tell you what a relief it was to have my head covered with hair, albeit artificial.The wig was a different color than my real hair.It was blond and swingy short, coming to right above my shoulders.It was new, and I could just plop it on and go.Funny enough, my relatives liked the wig better than my actual hair.

As time went by, I enjoyed going to Stewart’s for their various wellness programs.I attended Tai Chi lessons with my husband at no cost and went to some cancer support groups.My child attended their summer camps and attended several of their holiday parties. 

Stewart’s became a part of our lives.We knew that we could access their help if anyone in our family needed anything on “our” cancer journey.

Cancer does strange things to you. Once, I was at Stewart’s for a luncheon, and they were serving lasagna. Making sure to be first in the “chow” line, I grabbed the large serving spoon and systematically began to scoop the cheese off the top of the dish.

I took more than my fair share, but broken by cancer, I didn’t care how it looked. I wanted cheese that day, and Stewart’s freely gave it to me. No one said anything. No one criticized me. Looking back on the experience now as a healthy person, I certainly wouldn’t do it again. Life is a process. If we’re lucky, we live and learn.

Flash forward to 2018. The nonprofit was growing out of its space and wanted to build a bigger facility. Stewart’s Caring Place, now headed up by new executive director Christy Michaels, is a 12,222-square foot masterpiece standing on Ridge Road, just miles up the road from where the first smaller building had been on West Market. And there is room for everything.

In a word, the place is beautiful.There are rooms for whatever you can think of including a music room that contains a piano; an art room; a massage room for reiki, massage, facials and reflexology; a food pantry for those in need of food during times of situational poverty; a kitchen, where cooking classes about how to eat healthily are taught; meeting rooms; a board room that can be utilized by the community; an exercise room; a children’s rec room; counseling rooms; a library, and finally, a wig room, which was, again, the first room I accessed back in 2012.Recently, the wig room has been expanded with the donation of nearly 500 wigs.A local stylist went of business and donated her inventory to Stewart’s.

According to Sarah Vojtek, Stewart’s director of development, “Anyone at any age, stage or phase from newly diagnosed or 20 years out is welcome here for as long as they want.”

As for me, I will be journeying back to Stewart’s in the near future to attend support groups, this time to act not as someone who necessarily needs support, but as a mentor to aid in giving individuals a glimmer of hope that yes, there can be life beyond cancer.

You could say that Akron, Ohio is a good place to be if you have to go through any kind of cancer.Stewart’s Caring Place has aided thousands of people since its inception in 2003.And now with the new building, they will be able to assist countless more.

Akron is a lucky town. And if you like cheese, you’ll certainly find it at Stewart’s.


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