Sometimes the simplest things can become the most daunting. With a diagnosis of cancer comes a host of other mundane problems, like paying the bills, finding affordable medications, or even help with cab fare and gas money. Whether it’s practical or emotional assistance they seek, clients and families in the Inland Northwest have someplace to turn when life is most difficult: Cancer Patient Care is a whole-life giving, uniquely local support organization that all started with a caring woman living on the South Hill.
Sitting at the small kitchen table in her impeccable home, 96-year-old Janet Markham acknowledges that she and her husband co-founded Cancer Patient Care 50 years ago, but she’s careful not to take too much credit for its success.
“We weren’t the only ones,” she wants to make clear, “There were other people but they’re all gone.”
In 1958, when Janet, her husband Lorin, and other founding members started the Spokane County Cancer Association, only one in four cancer patients survived. Research, treatment and support agencies operated on a national level and very few services trickled down to people suffering the disease in their own community. The Markhams saw an urgent need to take action and created a local, direct support agency.
“That was it from the beginning,” says Janet. “We needed to help local people. We tried to help emotionally. That’s important. You just get beside yourself if you don’t have help.”
Janet says the emotional and medical assistance was provided in the beginning through a partnership with Spokane’s Visiting Nurses Association, which was then a group of hospital nurses who provided care to low-income patients homebound by their sicknesses.
Spokane County Cancer Association counted on small donations to provide its services.
“Someone would give us a room, we’d have rummage sales,” Janet recalls. “We started a thrift store.” Their “Penny Stretcher” Thrift Store began on Boone Avenue, and later moved to Trent Avenue.
In 1986, the core group of committee members changed the name of the Spokane County Cancer Association to Cancer Patient Care of Spokane County. It has become the primary safety net organization to which regional cancer care centers, and even its old partner, VNA, refer patients. So Cancer Patient Care dropped its “Spokane County” designation and expanded services to patients in 13 other counties of Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
Janet says the success and reach of Cancer Patient Care has far surpassed all the goals she and her original group of colleagues imagined. “We just kept going and going and got better. It’s taken off lately just better than it’s ever been.”
While her involvement in creating Cancer Patient Care was part of a lifelong commitment to volunteering, Janet’s passion for comforting cancer patients also has personal roots.
“My mother died of cancer 71 years ago. I was 25. My poor father, the doctor would just come and check in — what could they do? She became weaker and weaker. You know, I sometimes think that’s what put me into all this.”
Through research, medical advancements and early detection, the survival rates for many types of cancer have doubled or tripled since Janet’s mother died. But the emotional and physical reality of cancer has not changed.
“You still have the same fear and pain,” she says.
And that is why she spent 40 years actively working to guarantee the success of Cancer Patient Care, helping ensure the greatest number of families in her community are lifted by her organization’s practical, yet vital doses of support and hope.