Fighting the Cancer, Healing the Soul

The Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic treats cancer's side effects with "an outpouring of love."

Illustration by Jake Olimb/Getty Images

The Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic is "a place of loving kindness that opens your heart, feeds your body, heals your soul. It's a place where everyone sustains and uplifts each other, [creating] a pocket of good energy that each woman takes as she leaves and spreads around. That's the philosophy of volunteer Casey Fisher who has worked at CMCC off and on since its inception.

Social worker Charlotte Maxwell, for whom the clinic is named, died of ovarian cancer in 1988 — but not before passing on her fierce belief that low-income women should have access to the acupuncture and herbal therapies that eased her final months. In 1989, six women pooled $4,000 to found what would eventually become the Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic. The clinic opened in Oakland, California, in 1991, offering free acupuncture, herbs, massage, and other treatments one afternoon per week to about a dozen women with cancer. Now, 15 years later, the clinic is open two and a half days per week in Oakland and one day per week in San Francisco and, with a handful of staff and some 150 volunteers, helps 300 clients cope with the physical, spiritual, and social side effects of cancer.

Bread and roses

On clinic days, CMCC's waiting room has the ambience of a common room before a dorm social. An overstuffed sofa and armchairs line three walls. A long table along the fourth wall and a coffee table are laden with baskets of fruits, vegetables, dip, and crusty loaves of bread. Buckets of flowers stand in the corner.

Sarah Hom, who comes from Nevada once a month to volunteer, offers me a cup of tea as she explains that she has just picked up donations of organic produce from Full Belly Farms and bread from Semifreddi's Bakery. Nothing here speaks of 'clinic' except perhaps the corner bookshelves that house a lending library of cancer related titles.

Shortly, the room fills, mostly with mid-life and older women. Every client accepted at CMCC is a low-income woman with a cancer diagnosis, and each is offered free treatment.

Except for their name tags, the volunteer practitioners are indistinguishable from clients. Elena Calderon is waiting for an acupuncture treatment to help build her immunity and overcome the side effects of chemotherapy. She's been coming to the clinic for about two years for ovarian cancer diagnosed in 2002. Ms. Calderon said she used to get nauseous just anticipating chemotherapy sessions. She would go to patient support groups but would just absorb everyone else's complaints and feel worse. At CMCC by contrast, people come out of treatment smiling.

"Here, they welcomed me, made me feel like family, helped me communicate better with my family," she said. "They taught me how to visualize my fear of chemotherapy ... as a black ball in the middle of my chest that I could lift out and throw into the ocean... People touch you like they love you; they give you food and love. Anything I can say about this place won't be enough."

Raelyn Gallina echoes Ms. Calderon. CMCC is "love, an outpouring of love." Before she was diagnosed with 'galloping' inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and highly malignant cancer, Ms. Gallina was a jewelry artist. After super-aggressive treatment, she now has arthritis, nerve damage, and edema and can no longer grip her jeweler's tools. She characterizes cancer treatment as barbaric.

"You're held hostage by cancer, by the diagnosis, by the treatment. Chemotherapy may save your life, but it may devastate the life you knew."

Ms. Gallina has tried acupuncture, lymph drainage massage, reiki, and therapeutic visualization, none of which she would be able to afford without CMCC. She can't pinpoint how effective her CMCC treatments have been, but, two years post-diagnosis, she is grateful to be alive, and she's starting to find ways to create art again.

According to executive director Cari Napoles, the risk of death from breast cancer is four times greater for below-poverty women.

Enough to spread around

In an orientation meeting, staff members review a client's medical records with her to make sure that she understands her options for both conventional and complementary alternative medicine (CAM) treatments. The clinic offers CAM therapies only -- acupuncture, Chinese and Western herbs, homeopathy, massage, and therapeutic imagery -- to help relieve pain and the fatigue, nausea, nerve damage, and other side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. CMCC's care includes helping clients meet basic survival needs: social service benefits, housing, legal aid, emergency funds, and, in one case, a bed of their own for the children of a sleep-deprived patient.

Social workers also may provide written summaries of CMCC treatments to help a client communicate with her conventional-care doctors. In addition, the clinic provides home-visits to house-bound patients, transportation to and from the clinic, food, and education programs, all provided by volunteers or supported by donations from individuals, local businesses, and private foundations.

Winding up their day at CMCC, clients each pack a bag of produce and bread and make a flower arrangement to take home. Sarah Hom returns from driving a client home smiling cheerfully. Ms. Hom learned about CMCC at a kayaking fundraiser event, then stayed to volunteer. She enjoys sharing in a community where "everyone speaks openly" and where she can be among strongly motivated people who face cancer. "They add so much to our lives," she says.

As I leave, I find myself smiling and cheerful, too. Casey Fisher is right -- I've partaken of CMCC's good energy and am eager to spread it around.

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