There is perhaps no more frightening phrase one can hear from a doctor than “You’ve got cancer.”

Until recent decades, the insidious disease — which can affect and decimate nearly any organ in the body — was a guaranteed death sentence, or one which could only be overcome with devastating doses of radiation or chemotherapy that made treatment a hellish experience to endure.

Gillian Harwood is an eight-year survivor of pancreatic cancer.

But there have been some major signs of hope since some breakthroughs in the early 1990s, which have helped decrease American cancer rates annually by 1.8 percent among men and 1.4 percent among women and children. Today, there are more than 15.5 million cancer survivors in America, with that number expected to climb to 20.3 million in 2026. Overall, the U.S. cancer death rate has declined 27 percent in the past 25 years.

A big part of the improvement stems from the large decline in smoking in the U.S., but cancer will still have a big impact on Americans as the nation’s population ages and also becomes more obese. Ultimately, 38.4 percent of Americans will face cancer at some point in their lives, with lung, breast, colorectal and prostate cancers being the most common.

One big key to successful survival is having a solid support network of not only friends and family, but fellow cancer patients as well — those fighting it at the same time or who have gone into remission. Thankfully, Ventura County and the rest of Southern California have some solid options to offer. Gillian Harwood has been going to one — the Cancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara in Westlake Village (CSC) — for several years.

“When I was in the waiting room at a Kaiser medical facility, they had the number to join on their notice board,” recalls Harwood, who is an eight-year survivor of pancreatic cancer. “I’m not exactly a joiner, but I decided to after still feeling poorly a year later. I decided I needed some help and I’ve never regretted it since.”

“Everyone has cancer in the group or is hopefully getting better,” she adds. “There is also a caregivers group and a group for children, and for families of people with cancer. They have a lot of fitness things like mindfulness, tai chi and yoga, and everything is free. We’ve got some lovely people in our group and you get caught up in their problems, but it’s not all dreary and miserable. We have quite a few laughs as well. We have a facilitator who’s been doing it for years and she is absolutely brilliant.”

Stories like that are music to the ears of Cancer Support Community Executive Director Steven Dwyer, who took the reins of the group early this year after serving as executive director at the Ventura County Habitat for Humanity chapter for several years. He notes that there are 40 other CSC chapters nationwide, with his group’s service area welcoming people from the west side of San Fernando Valley through both Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Dwyer suggests that cancer patients seeking support should go to the CSC website (cancersupportvvsb.org), which offers a calendar packed with more than 700 mind and body classes and 58 educational programs. There are also lunch talks featuring doctors discussing treatment options and cooking classes for proper nutrition, with every aspect of the nonprofit’s services covered by donor support that includes multiple fundraisers throughout the year.

“Our greatest value is that, unfortunately, it’s not hard to find people impacted by cancer personally or with their family, so there’s support groups, wellness classes, education and individual counseling,” Dwyer notes. “Visualization, relaxation, stress reduction and mindfulness classes are especially popular, and there are specific classes for certain cancers like early and late stage breast cancer, prostate and general programs for any kind of cancer. All our programs are offered at no cost to the participant because people have enough stress with their diagnosis and we’re here to support a wide variety of psychosocial programs to complement their treatment.”

Anne Gessert has battled four different cancers in her 13 years, with her pancreatic cancer in remission but her lung cancer still active.

Anne Gessert is one CSC member who has had such positive experiences that she now works for the organization as a facilitator for their group discussions. She has battled four different cancers in her 13 years of attendance, with her pancreatic cancer in remission but her lung cancer still active.

She has lived in Ventura County for the past 41 years, moving here from her native England when she got married to a fellow British émigré who already lived here. Her resilience and positive attitude are amazing, particularly considering the string of maladies she has had to endure.

“It was pretty heavy duty because I was diagnosed with pancreatic and lung cancer,” Gessert says. “They had to do a bypass on my bile duct to get me stable, then did lung surgery and when I was recovering from that I had my gall bladder, pancreas, spleen and part of my intestines removed and then I had chemo. I had cancer of the appendix as well, and it was devastating and seemed unreal.”

“I couldn’t take it in, what was happening, and the diagnosis was pretty poor. That was 14 years ago and most did not survive,” she continues. “Knowing that, it was such an emotional hit, but eventually I worked it through because I had a brilliant surgeon on both lung and pancreas operations. I am still surprised by how I’m still alive and many people think it’s amazing. So do I. But I seem to have managed so far, thanks to the Community’s health and support.”

John Ray was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2015.

Men traditionally have been less willing to open up about their battles with cancer and other major health issues, but John Ray is one of the exceptions at the CSC. He started receiving their support in September 2015 after being diagnosed with prostate cancer, and credits his attendance there with his survival and current remission status.

“When I turned 50 I had a normal PSA blood test, which is really a prostate-specific antigen,” Ray explains. “When elevated, it just means you need to be looked at further. That further testing is how most men find it, or by having difficulty urinating, so I asked for all the tests.”

“Every six months, my PSA went two points higher but was still being labeled as negative on cancer,” he adds. “Someone at CSC said they could help and recommended going to doctor in Ventura. My numbers indicated I was 80 percent certain of having cancer, because they took a different kind of biopsy and an ultrasound detected spots. They found a high risk, Stage 3 prostate cancer, one that could metastasize quickly, and I was fairly young for it.”

Ray was so grateful for the CSC support that he keeps going to meetings even though he’s been in remission, listening to the latest treatments “because there’s always a risk that it comes back.” His passion for the organization led to his being asked to join the CSC board of directors in September 2017, and he’s using his experience as the owner of a fundraising company to serve as the CSC’s chairman of development.

“The difficulty of men sharing is true, because prostate cancer can affect a man’s libido and other sexual-related functions,” says Ray. “They have men-only groups there twice a week. You don’t know you need a support group until you go to support group. It’s good camaraderie and you form good friendships with guys dealing with this every month.”

“On days I had radiation or chemo, I felt so bad, but I’d go to a group and feel, what am I bitching about – there’s guys who are not curable at this point and throwing everything at it to keep it at bay,” he adds. “The group helps you appreciate your situation more, and it helps with depression. There’s a guy who’s in his 80s, getting treated from head down to his legs and still comes to support groups. I turned that around and I said I’m here because of you — if you can get out of bed, what’s my excuse? That’s how important that support group is.”

The Cancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara is located at 530 Hampshire Road, Westlake Village. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Call 805-379-4777 or visit cancersupportvvsb.org.