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The Power of Programming and Peer Support

Mental Health and Community with Laura Leach, LMSW

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time dedicated to highlighting the importance of mental health and the resources available to nourish. This month, we’re thrilled to have our incredible Volunteer and Program Coordinator, Laura Leach, LMSW, answer some of our questions on the importance of support groups, programming, and the effect they have on mental health. Laura plays a pivotal role in shaping the programs and workshops that make such a positive impact on our community. Let’s dive into our conversation with Laura and learn more about her work and the impactful programs she develops at Gilda’s Club.  

Tell us about your role at Gilda’s Club, we know it is a big one!  

Hi there! I am the Volunteer and Program Coordinator here at Gilda’s Club. I have the pleasure of working with our dedicated volunteers and staff to create a variety of workshops, classes and events for our members. I am also a social worker, and I am honored to facilitate the Breast Cancer and Gynecologic Cancers Networking Groups.  

How do you go about choosing programs for the calendar every month?  

I love brainstorming new ideas for our programming! Each month, I communicate with current volunteers and organizations to seek out new volunteer talent to offer programming that will complement our support groups and provide opportunities for healthy lifestyle workshops, mind-body classes, social activities, and educational lectures. I spend a lot of time with our members and appreciate hearing directly what they might find helpful in supporting their health and well-being. I also enjoy pop culture, and this inspires fun events like our “Nailed It!” Cupcake Competition

Do you have any member stories or experiences you want to share that show the power of support groups on mental and emotional health through the cancer experience? 

I have heard many times that the relationships formed in our support groups are life changing. Members have shared that our groups made it possible for them to endure extremely difficult situations. Through our groups, members find sacred spaces where they are seen and heard, validated, encouraged, and empowered with shared knowledge and resources. Members hold space for one another’s pain and joy. The power of community through these groups makes some of the most overwhelming experiences in life more manageable.  

We know the mental health benefits of individual counseling and support groups, but can you talk about the benefits of attending other programs such as expressive arts, educational workshops, or movement classes? 

Absolutely! Attending workshops and classes with other Gilda’s Club members is a wonderful way to build relationships and to create a sense of community.  

Movement workshops, like yoga, boast mental health benefits such as lowering distress and levels of anxiety and depression- not to mention the physical health benefits! 1

Art classes provide an opportunity to express emotions and share experiences through creative expression. One recent study found that “dedicated exposure to art is associated with improved hope, anxiety and mental well-being of patients after major oncologic procedures and surgery”.2   

Educational classes provide information and resources to empower members as they make health-related decisions. This increase in knowledge is said to increase the quality of life of those with cancer and their caregivers. 3

There is a wide variety of programming at Gilda’s Club- emotional and social support can be accessed in so many ways, and we are always glad to speak with members about how our community can best support them. 

What programs are you most looking forward to in the next couple of months? 

This summer, we will be adding fun programming for kids and teens, including Comic Book Art Exploration on Saturday, June 21! We will also be hosting a PRIDE Ice Cream Social on Monday, June 24 that will be a treat, and an opportunity to meet the new facilitator of our LGBTQ+ Networking Group.  I’m very grateful for our programs that allow exploration and open discussion of important and difficult topics, like Exploring Purposeful Living and Dying (June 4), and our True Life series (our next True Life will focus on loneliness, dates TBA).

What is your best piece of mental health advice for someone facing cancer? Whether that be a diagnosis, in survivorship, or as a loved one? 

You don’t have to face this diagnosis alone. I know coming through our door (or “Zooming”) for the first time can make one feel vulnerable or anxious. On the other side of that door, you will find a community who “gets it” and where you can be who and where you are- wherever that may be- from newly diagnosed to survivorship to caregiving or grieving. You are not alone. 

Interested in hosting a workshop or have a question for Laura? Find her here or give us a call at the Clubhouse (615-329-1124)!  

Physical and psychosocial benefits of yoga in cancer patients and survivors, a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials ↩︎

Roswell Park: How Art Heals ↩︎

Propelling a New Era of Patient Education into Practice ↩︎