It was in January 2012, not long after Gayle Whittemore married the love of her life, Alexandra Glickman (“Alex”), that she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
It began she said with a “gnawing feeling,” a pain in the nipple of one of her breasts that wouldn’t go away.
“It was itchy, scratchy, that kind of sensation,” said Whittemore, chief financial officer, Children’s Bureau of Southern California. “It was an uncomfortable sensation that I admittedly ignored. I thought ‘I’m invincible, nothing’s really wrong with me.’”
Whittemore said she was diligent in getting her annual check-ups and mammograms, and everything always came back fine. When the sensation didn’t go away, her primary care physician at the time recommended a biopsy.
‘No Thank You’
“I said ‘No, thank you, very much,’ and walked out the door and didn’t do anything about it,” she said. “I know at that time I was in denial.”
Whittemore’s wife disagreed with her. She went to Whittemore’s mother Alice Whittemore, a renowned epidemiologist and biostatistician at Stanford University (now retired), and the two of them urged her to reconsider a biopsy.
“I was a little more forceful,” said Glickman, who is senior managing director and Practice Leader for Arthur J. Gallagher & Co’s Global Real Estate and Hospitality Practice. “I said you are going to get that biopsy, and you’re going to get it at a National Cancer Institute-accredited hospital.” Glickman had a familial history with City of Hope and has been an active supporter of City of Hope’s philanthropic efforts for many years.
Longtime Supporter of City of Hope
Whittemore’s mother gave her several referrals, one of which was City of Hope. Though Whittemore didn’t have a personal connection to City of Hope, Glickman did. A member of the Los Angeles Real Estate & Construction Industries Council for decades, she was very familiar with City of Hope’s reputation, exceptional research and patient service.
“Because of Alex’s existing relationship with City of Hope, I knew if I was going to do this, City of Hope was where it was going to be.” In January of 2012, Whittemore became a patient of Laura Kruper, M.D., breast surgeon at City of Hope, and the biopsy was performed.
The Alexandra Glickman Bench
After the biopsy, Whittemore and Glickman left the Women’s Health Center and sat down on a nearby bench to take in what they were facing. Because of a contribution from Glickman’s mother’s estate and Glickman’s many years of personal fundraising for City of Hope, its Office of Philanthropy recognized these contributions with an honorary plaque. Quite serendipitously, the couple was sitting on the “Alexandra Glickman” bench.
“I knew that there was a bench on the campus somewhere that had my name on it,” Glickman said. “But when we sat down and saw that it was that very bench, unbeknownst to us, it was so special. We knew City of Hope was where Gayle was meant to be.”
When the biopsy results came back, Kruper reached Whittemore at home with the news that she did in fact have cancer and a lumpectomy should be scheduled as soon as possible. Her diagnosis was Stage 2 HER 2 positive breast cancer, more specifically, a rare form called Paget disease of the breast, which involves the skin of the nipple and the areola, the darker circle of skin around it.
“I was stunned,” Whittemore said. “We caught my disease because of my wife and my mother’s insistence that I see a doctor.” Whittemore said that extra push may have saved her life.
At the beginning of her treatment, Gayle had surgery to remove the cancerous nipple and surrounding lymph nodes. Some of the lymph nodes tested positive for cancer, so she underwent a second surgery to get clean margins and have a chemotherapy port inserted. “As part of my treatment, I was supposed to undergo chemo every two weeks for 16 weeks,” she recalls.
“During that very difficult time, Kruper and Joanne Mortimer, M.D., director of Women’s Cancer Programs at City of Hope, were so compassionate and so precise in how they took care of me,” Whittemore said. “They became like family to me. And I’ve come to see that’s who everyone at City of Hope is. Once you’re a patient, City of Hope becomes a second family to you.”
After a chemotherapy appointment one day, Glickman picked up her wife and the couple went to lunch nearby. By the end of that lunch, Whittemore said she couldn’t move her arm. She ended up back on the City of Hope Duarte campus, this time in Urgent Care. She had developed a Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) infection that made her very ill. “I had to stop because my toes and feet went numb, and my doctors were concerned I would have permanent neuropathy.”
“I was unbelievably sick,” she said. She underwent a third surgery and was an inpatient at Helford Clinical Research Hospital for five days. To say her treatment was grueling is an understatement. Glickman said she was angry and frustrated that she couldn’t do more for her wife, and felt helpless.
An Idea for Coping with Cancer
“I would go for walks on the campus, especially in the Rose Garden, wondering what I could do as a caregiver,” said Glickman, who has four adopted children and a grandson with Whittemore. “As hard as this was on Gayle, it’s also hard and scary when you see the person you love going through such agony.”
Glickman had an idea. She was already well acquainted with City of Hope’s commitment to compassionate care and treatment, and knew that humanity and kindness extended to the family of the patients as well. She decided to see what she could do to help start a supportive care program where patients and their loved ones can learn how to go through a cancer diagnosis together, and how the caregivers can give the most support and also receive the support they need to remain strong for their partner.
“I told Joanne (Mortimer) that Alex and I wanted to do something,” Whittemore said. “We shared our idea, and then we brainstormed with Matt (Loscalzo) and Courtney (Bitz) to see how this could fit into their supportive care model.”
“We all know that mental and emotional health are just as important as physical health,” Glickman said of Couples Coping with Cancer Together. “A diagnosis doesn’t just impact the patient; it impacts the patient’s partner and family as well. Even the most loving and secure relationships can struggle with emotional support, communication and problem-solving, and that’s what our vision for this program was, to provide that support.”
Through the Department of Supportive Care Medicine and the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center, there was already substantial research and evidence that supported Glickman’s idea, a solid foundation for what would evolve into the Couples Coping with Cancer Together program.
“We knew the research was clear and that this type of support wasn’t being addressed in standard medical care,” said Bitz, director of clinical social work. “We had started a pilot called The Partners Clinic, had collected some data, learned a lot, and we were ready to take this to the next level and make it a more comprehensive program integrated into medical care. That’s where City of Hope’s partnership with Gayle and Alex began, and through their efforts and generosity, we were able to launch Couples Coping with Cancer Together.”
Whittemore and Glickman reached out to some of their friends who had supported important causes before and told them what they had in mind.
“They were incredibly generous, and we managed to raise $200,000 to help get the program started and hire a dedicated social worker to manage Couples Coping with Cancer Together,” Whittemore said.
Today, Couples Coping with Cancer Together is a thriving program at City of Hope and is one of the only programs of its kind. It is offered as part of the normal continuum of care City of Hope provides to patients and their families. The program has been a success since the very beginning and has been presented on internationally. To date, 2,297 couples have benefitted from the program, which has received $765,553 in philanthropy and grant support since its inception.
The comments received from patients and their partners is a testament to the program’s success:
“I am at awe of how much you have made me feel comfortable, and my husband’s hope has gone up as he feels reassured as well. You all live up to your hospital’s name.
“I told my doctor that this program really took away our anxiety and that it made such a difference.”
“This was so helpful. We weren’t expecting this, and it was such good advice to come to Couples Coping with Cancer Together.”
“We have been married for 50 years and have never had a conversation like this.”
‘It’s Not About Me’
“We are so gratified that it has been embraced by the patients and their loved ones at City of Hope,” Whittemore said of Couples Coping with Cancer Together. “I know that I could not have gone through my own cancer diagnosis without Alex, my mother, and friends and family around me.”
In that spirit of giving back, Whittemore has graciously agreed to be the Patient Ambassador of this year’s Walk for Hope, an annual campaign to raise funds for treatments, research and support programs for breast and gynecological cancers.
“At first, I thought, ‘Well, I’m not an on-camera kind of person,’ but I also knew that this isn’t about me,” Whittemore said. “City of Hope saved my life and I wanted to step up and get the job done. Life happens to us all. It takes a village coming together for a cause to make a difference. And it’s not just about money. Funding is essential, of course, but it’s also about raising awareness, and that’s why I Walk for Hope. You never want to become a cancer patient, but if you do have cancer, there is no better place than City of Hope.”
Join us for the 25th annual Walk for Hope on Sunday, November 7. You can find more information, register and donate here.