Bridgette Eilers of Riverbank counted on support from her husband, parents, in-laws and friends during chemotherapy for ovarian cancer three years ago.
Her “crew” became the inspiration for a nonprofit group that assists those who are facing cancer treatment.
“Someone was always with me,” said Eilers, a mother of three who was diagnosed when she was 29 years old. “The biggest thing for me was knowing I did not have to clean and cook. I could just focus on getting better and not be overwhelmed by the daily things.”
Eilers founded the Chemo Crew in November 2011 after four months of treatment that tamed her Stage III cancer. She finds that many cancer patients lack support from friends or family.
Her group has 40 volunteers who provide resource kits to patients and assist with housekeeping, yardwork and grocery shopping. Other patients need transportation to appointments.
The volunteers have distributed 800 “chemo kits” stuffed with information and items to help people cope with treatment, including lotions, a heat pack for achy muscles, vomit bags and hard candy. The group offers assistance to everyone from young adults to seniors in Stanislaus County and the southern half of San Joaquin County.
Eilers stressed that the Chemo Crew does not give medical advice or use the word “patient” when referring to individuals who receive assistance.
According to Eilers, most people facing chemotherapy are afraid of the common side effects: hair loss, nausea, loss of appetite, anemia, infections, swelling and constipation. With chemotherapy, toxic drugs are injected into the body to eliminate cancer cells or shrink tumors.
“The weekend (after the first treatment), I had so much anxiety over what was going to happen, I could not sleep or eat,” Eilers said.
Every three weeks, she was injected with potent drugs through an intravenous line and a port in her abdomen. She mostly stayed home after the therapy at Kaiser Modesto Medical Center.
While some patients have an easier time with chemotherapy, Eilers suffered through most of the side effects, she said. Friends brought meals for the family, and her parents stayed at the home for weeks, helping with daily chores and child care.
Once, she ventured out to attend her son’s baseball game and broke out in hives from the sun exposure, she said. She learned to eat hard candy to mask the metallic taste in her mouth.
Eilers has been in remission for 31/2 years. Her experience with chemo made her determined to support others who are navigating cancer treatment. She asked breast cancer survivor Sonna Evans to help with building the organization. The two women attend Big Valley Grace Community Church in Modesto, where a support group meets the third Wednesday of each month at 6:45 p.m.
The Chemo Crew also provides assistance for people undergoing radiation treatment, hormone therapy or cancer-related surgery. Some are referred to the group by local hospitals, Eilers said.
Besides the physical rigors of treatment, cancer patients deal with fears of possible death or losing their ability to work and support themselves, Evans said. Some ask that a volunteer sit with them in the infusion center for their first round of chemo. Others may simply ask the group for a resource kit.
Kristy Ibarra of Modesto heard the women speak at a cancer survivors’ conference in April 2013 and requested their services this year even though she has support from family. She is undergoing chemotherapy for metastatic breast cancer.
Ibarra was impressed with the chemo kits and has attended the support group. “It’s a great way to support each other and get your feelings out there,” she said. “I really enjoyed attending. It’s a caring group of people.”
The Chemo Crew has a resource series for people living with cancer. A panel of oncology social workers will speak at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at a conference room at 1400 Florida Ave., across the street from Doctors Medical Center in Modesto.
Eilers noted that many people are not aware of the ability of social workers to connect them with an array of services. For example, they can assist cancer patients who need prescription drugs not covered by insurance or explain how to get a disabled driver placard.
Evans said the organization continues to build its volunteer base and is outgrowing a small office at Big Valley church.
“Bridgette founded the Chemo Crew with a mission to provide hope and help to cancer patients and their families,” Evans said. “She doesn’t want to see anyone go through cancer alone.”
More information about the Chemo Crew is available at http://chemocrew.com, or call (209) 216-6271.