NARRAGANSETT – For 15 years, Narragansett resident Marie Saccoccio has been helping uplift local and area women diagnosed with cancer through a unique and lasting support group. Certified by the American Cancer Society (ACS) to assist women battling any form of the disease, Saccoccio, who has built up a steady base of group members over the years, makes a dedicated effort to ensure the overall support experience is communal, positive and inspiring while still being informative and useful.
“One thing I want to stress about this is that it’s all very upbeat,” said Saccoccio. “We are a support group after all, so we do talk about the serious issues of course, but it’s not to where it’s a gruesome, negative situation. It gets to a point where some of the new members look around the table and say ‘oh, she looks good, she looks good, I’m going to be fine.’ That’s what the whole thing is about.”
Saccoccio, who formerly owned an area real estate business, began the support program in 2004 after receiving ACS training and becoming a certified volunteer for Reach to Recovery, a faction of ACS that focuses on breast cancer support. Though certified in this area, Saccoccio stresses her support group is open to any and all women who are battling any form of cancer, in remission or who have survived any cancer diagnosis. She held her first meeting at South County Hospital that year, eventually outgrew the space, and moved to the South Kingstown YMCA, which she and the group also eventually outgrew. Ultimately, they ended up at South Kingstown Senior Center on Dominic Road in Wakefield, where the forum, which has seen over 80 women become members, still meets at 1 p.m. on the last Wednesday of every month to discuss the hardships of living with such a disease, but also to share personal anecdotes and life milestones. According to Saccoccio, the meetings provide a unique opportunity to speak with people who may have gone through a similar situation or a topic that is difficult to discuss with loved ones.
“Here, you can talk with women who have cancer or have had cancer, and perhaps you can talk about things you don’t want to talk about with your own family, because they worry,” she said.
In order to get the most out of the monthly gatherings, Saccoccio divides the support meetings into two factions: the first, which Saccoccio describes as a “rap session,” typically sees members come together in the senior center’s conference room to share personal experiences with cancer or catch up with each other.
“Everyone’s getting their ideas together,” she said of the meetings’ start. “It could be simple things–such as a particular skin lotion that doesn’t combine well with common cancer treatments–or their wig is bothering them. It could be family things–whose kid is getting married, babies are being born, we’re showing each other pictures.”
In the second half of the forum, Saccoccio invites a guest speaker or presenter on a wide range of topics–some concerning health, others not.
“I search for all kinds of people that will come in and do a presentation on an interesting, and many times fun, topic,” she said.
Presentations to the group from outside guest speakers have covered subjects such as nutrition, physical therapy, meditation, relaxation, pharmaceutical and wound care, tick-borne illnesses, cooking and beyond. Saccoccio states that no guest speaker has ever charged her for a presentation.
“We even had a Zumba class,” Saccoccio recalls. “All we did was laugh at each other.”
Saccoccio said finding individuals and groups to speak at the meetings is a factor of running the support group she dedicates much time toward and takes extremely seriously. Towing the line between helpful presentations for group members that are also not explicitly bleak requires diligence, according to the group’s leader.
“I watch this very closely,” she said, noting that she maintains an email list of all support group members with whom she regularly communicates, sharing cancer-related stories or developments. “I don’t want to put a damper on anyone’s beliefs or whatever, but I do want to know what guests speakers are going to be talking about beforehand. I watch for all of these things hoping to keep the balance. I’m sort of a protective mother and I do want to know what is going on and how they’re going to come across.”
“I would never have an oncologist or an oncology nurse come,” she continued. “Because everybody’s case is different. We’ve had breast cancer, ovarian cancer, some cancers that you’ve never even heard of. I’m very protective when it comes to that.”
Out of concern for patient confidentiality and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), guest presenters attend the meeting only during the second part of the session, when group members have finished sharing personal and medical experiences and inquiries.
“It’s for women who need a safe haven to talk to other women that have been through it,” summarized Saccoccio. “Nobody can deal with this particular issue unless you’ve been through it. Even my doctor, who is a woman, said she would never know what it was like unless she was diagnosed with breast or another form of cancer. So talking to somebody who’s been through it is probably one of the best types of therapy that you can have.”
Saccoccio isn’t merely a facilitator of support for other women, however, and at times, required some of it in return. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, an experience that inspired her to receive the ACS certification and start helping others in a similar scenario.
“It brought me to my knees,” she said of the diagnosis. “I was just so devastated and my doctor asked if I thought I would benefit from a support group. I immediately said ‘no,’ because I pictured it to be, you know, very negative with bald women and intravenous pulls. I didn’t think I would benefit from anything like that. I needed more positivity.”
“So, a doctor, a friend of mine, had said, ‘you know Marie, the more you learn about breast cancer, the more comfortable you’re going to be, and eventually, you’re going to want to turn this around and help others,’” Saccoccio continued. “At first, I never thought that would happen. I guess he knew me better than I knew me.”
When she recovered, Saccoccio began thinking about the area’s lacking support systems for women battling cancer, and thus began her own.
“Then I started to see where I was,” she said. “I started getting better at it. Being at home in the South County area back then, there wasn’t anything. There were no groups. There was one, but it had died out.”
However, a second breast cancer diagnosis in 2006 was again crippling, inspiring Saccoccio to take an extreme action.
“I got afraid with the second diagnosis,” she said. “My mom is a breast cancer survivor, and I’m happy to say she’s 92 now and nobody would ever guess, but I saw her go through it. When something happened a second time, I decided to have the big surgery.”
Soon after, Saccoccio underwent two mastectomy surgeries with reconstruction. It was due to this experience that she felt like she could further provide women facing similar daunting surgeries with comfort and information. Despite her focus on keeping positivity present at the meetings, the support group is still eager to help women who may have difficult questions about various cancer-related, potentially life-saving surgeries that can have a permanent, negative effect on the body, and other serious inquiries or concerns, while keeping in mind the case-by-case nature of cancer.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Saccoccio said on asking and answering the tougher questions during meetings. “ I like to think I’ve been a help to some of the women with that too, who are facing making that decision. We don’t talk much about the molecular splitting of a cancer cell. But I do explain that I had breast cancer, and maybe you have breast cancer, but we’re different. Our cases are different, our doctors are different, and you have to listen to your physician and I have to listen to mine.”
In 2015, Saccoccio was diagnosed for a third time with a form of gastrointestinal cancer, a development that required yet another surgery, as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
“It was difficult to try and maintain a status of leadership after the latest diagnosis,” she said. “I had chemo for the first time. I didn’t need it the other two times. What I did was I basically knew I was too weak, physically and emotionally, to do my job. So I took about a six-month hiatus.”
During her break, Saccoccio watched as her role switched with that of her group members.
“But during that hiatus, these girls rallied,” she said. “Between sending me cards and wanting to visit, putting meals at my front door, it was amazing.”
Fortunately, the surgery was a success and Saccoccio was able to return back to heading the group she created. She notes that seeing the flipping of the group’s roles was an especially significant moment.
“When I learned how to give support, the most beautiful thing was watching these women learn how to give support,” she said. “It’s really been an incredible experience for me, and when I talk to these other ladies, it’s been an incredible experience for them as well. My feeling is that I wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of other women, especially women that have gone through all this.”
Since, the initial cancer support group has now split off into another, independent book club, known as “Book Talk,” which features both members of the support group and women who have never been diagnosed with any form of cancer. The group meets at Bagelz in Wakefield on Wednesdays.
“Everyone has a different literary appetite,” said Saccoccio. “We have women who are into fiction, thrillers, horror, romantic novels, biographies. We don’t have a reading list. They read whatever they want to read and come in and talk about it. We have a little lunch or a little dessert.”
And a third group, which started as a watercolor instruction course, as one of the cancer support group’s former members was a professional artist who wanted to teach the technique to fellow members, has since formed as a collection dedicated to Mahjong, a tile-based game that has its origin in China and has taken a hold with Western demographics.
“These women have truly bonded together over these games,” she said.
All of the groups have had a lasting effect on members.
“I’ve gotten letters and cards, occasionally I’ll get a little gift or something, just about all the women whose lives I’ve touched have expressed sincere gratitude,” she said, before recalling some of the specific thanks bestowed on her. “‘Marie, you really helped me out,’ ‘Marie, if it wasn’t for you,’ ‘Marie, you were my angel.’ I try to tell them that they don’t know how much this all has helped me out. It really has. It changed my life.”
Now healthy and cancer-free, Saccoccio hopes to continue the groups into the future for as long as possible, supporting cancer-stricken women, and others, along the way, She can be reached at (401) 789-7112.