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EAST TAWAS – For those who are going through the process of battling cancer, there’s a new support group setting up in the Tawases.

On Wednesday, March 23, members of the Alpena Chapter of Friends Together hosted a meet and greet at Barnacle Bill’s. The purpose of the event was to announce the participation of volunteers in the Tawas area who want to help support cancer patients and their families.

A total of 13 people attended.

Judy Burns of Alpena and founder of Friends Together was a mother who took care of her daughter when she had colon cancer over 26 years ago.

She said she went all over the United States looking for treatment, never getting any good news. The journey for cancer care was such a hazardous and arduous one, she felt there needed to be more support for those going through the same things her daughter and she did.

“I learned so much about support for folks going through cancer. Before my daughter passed away, I promised her nobody would go through it the way we did. It took me a little over a year and a half to get myself together and I began ‘Friends Together.’

With only $75 to work with, she started a chapter in Alpena to help any and all who wanted help overcome cancer. Today, she reports a budget of over $400,000 and they service hundreds of people daily.

“When someone’s diagnosed with cancer, it’s a whole different fork in the road for them in life,” she said.

“There’s the anticipation it’s going to be a bumpy ride. That’s one thing that’s all in common when folks are diagnosed. Our hope is that we can help smooth out that road and help them over the bumps and the ruts and get them to the next good place they need to be.”

Burns says the group is meant to get people to help themselves over the course of a diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Navigating a complex health system, planning treatment and motivating oneself to stay active presents many challenges Friends Together works to help individuals overcome.

“First of all it’s understanding that they have a diagnosis, accepting it and then getting a plan and working your plan to a better health situation,” she said.

Burns said she thought it was only going to be a monthly support group she was starting, however it has expanded to a huge organization that services seven counties. Friends Together has expanded gradually over 25 years to provide programs and services for those affected by cancer in Northern Michigan.

Centralized in Alpena, the support groups, resource centers and guidance counselors of Friends Together are seeking to expand out and help those affected by cancer throughout Northern Michigan.

Friends Together is not just limited to helping cancer patients, but they also have sessions for caretakers and family members. There, they help answer questions about how to take care of a cancer patient and different ways friends and families can help/cope with a loved one affected by cancer.

There’s a diverse range of issues and topics Friends Together covers in their support groups and sponsored events.

“You get this big emotional embrace when you walk in. You feel very comfortable. You realize that you’re not going through this experience all alone. You recognize that this is a confidential setting, so anything that’s shared in that group stays in that group. What we try to do is be advocates for the patient and their families so they can proceed with care or seek out second opinions or learn more about diet, nutrition, wellness, attitude, activity, gentle yoga, mind relaxation. It’s a holistic approach for them.”

Burns said they’re not a substitute for medical treatment, but rather a support structure for easing the body and mind. After all, improving a person’s outlook and mood has scientifically documented benefits, she said.

There are also gas card programs, where those in need who show up can take home gas cards to help pay for expenses.

There are women’s and men’s groups for sex-specific issues. For women, they pay for wigs, prostheses for mastectomies and a new bra. For men, they’re offered the same treatment minus the arm.

Morse is the executive director of Harbor Lights Pregnancy Center who said cancer affected her life.

“What I’ve discovered is the financial situation of our local communities and the distance to care is so prohibitive,” said Burns. “We’re trying to take what we can offer to them in our communities and that’s why we’re starting in Tawas.”

Burns described a topic known as “financial toxicity,” which basically means cancer treatment eats into a person’s finances and can completely bankrupt some individuals.

What can happen is they don’t get the best treatment possible because they have to negotiate and compromise with the doctors because they can’t afford to pay for gas or their insurance doesn’t cover a specific treatment they may need. That’s why they have so many fundraising programs to help pay for expenses related to treatment.

In February alone, they handed out $3,000 in gas cards.

Currently, there is a group established in Rogers City, and now Mary Morse of Tawas is helping establish a chapter in the Tawases.

I’ve had family members (with cancer) and I wanted to honor them,” she said. “We tried to get this group together before COVID hit and I had a sister going through cancer treatment at the time. I’ve had a mother, a father, a brother that passed away from it. I don’t know any family who hasn’t had a cancer experience.”

Morse said she hopes to help those who come to Friends Together to “look forward.” Every meeting would be about looking for the next stage in seeking treatment and bettering oneself to battle and hopefully beat cancer.

For now, the local chapter in Tawas in now scheduled to start regular meetings on April 5 at 5:30 pm at Barnacle Bills located on Newman street. They will meet there every Tuesday thereafter and are open to the community.

For more information, contact Friends Together at 989-356-3232 or go to their website at friendstogethermi.org.

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