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Leawood Center Helps People With Chronic Illness Find A New 'Normal'

Andrea Tudhope
KCUR 89.3
Becky Steiner flips through mementos from 2013, when she was going through chemotherapy for breast cancer. She still looks through the box of notes, but what she remembers even more are the efforts of friends and family to accommodate for her basic needs.

Every Tuesday at 11 a.m., a big group gathers for "T'ai Chi for the Heart" at Turning Point, a healing center in Leawood, Kansas.

"We typically start with meditation, then we do our warm-ups and start T'ai Chi movements," says Al Hussar, who's been coming to the class for more than five years.

Hussar has diabetes, and he's supporting a wife with multiple sclerosis. Others in the room also suffer from chronic illnesses, or are supporting chronically ill loved ones.

Credit Andrea Tudhope / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Bill Douglas leads T'ai Chi for the Heart at Turning Point, a Leawood, Kansas-based healing center for chronically ill patients, survivors and their loved ones. The center offers up to 50 programs per month, serving around 10,000 people per year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every two adults in the U.S. has a chronic illness, like arthritis and some cancers. But, many feel they don't get the support they need.

"In a sense, a diagnosis with cancer is almost like a death," says 34-year-old mother Becky Steiner. "Because it's the death of what you thought your life might be, or what your future might be."

When Steiner found out she had breast cancer at 31, she was a full-time graduate student, working a full-time job and taking care of two young children. Within two months of her diagnosis, she had a bilateral mastectomy and started chemotherapy. She quickly found she needed more than "Get Well" cards.

With everything on her plate in addition to chemotherapy, Steiner found even the most basic things really difficult.

"Foods taste different," she remembers. "Standing in the kitchen, smelling or cooking foods wasn't something I was able to do at that time."

She says she was never one to ask for help, but lucky for her, people just started to offer. Her kids' soccer league organized a meal train for her family; some friends went to treatment with her; others cleaned her house. 

Suddenly, she was overwhelmed by the support rather than cancer.

"It allowed me time to heal," she says, "and allowed us more time together as a family, to maintain normalcy."

Kansas City's Turning Point center is a place that actually facilitates this kind of care — services a chronically ill patient, like Steiner, may not know how to ask for, but desperately needs.

"Doctors were really great about treating physical symptoms and the diagnosis, but they were missing all of this stress and anxiety," says Lizzie Wright.

Wright used to work as a social worker at area hospitals. She saw a lot of extreme fatigue and loss of motivation.

"Entire lives were upended by these illnesses," Wright says.

But when she came on board as program director at Turning Point last March, she saw something different.

The Leawood-based care center serves chronically ill patients, survivors and their supporters with exercise and wellness classes, and support groups — dozens a month, free of charge. Mod couches fill the various rooms and the softly lit main space, where there's always a puzzle in process.

Credit Andrea Tudhope / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Lizzie Wright plans and modifies the programs at Turning Point to meet the needs of their participants. The center is striving to expand their impact by offering their services remotely online, and training doctors and nurses some of their practices.

Since its founding in 2001, Turning Point has served 80,000 people in the metro area. Wright says since they merged with the University of Kansas Hospital back in 2012, their reach has doubled.

"I can see the impact every day here," Wright says. "More positive, more hopeful. And being around people who are going through something similar, there's something really powerful with that."

And, the impact is measurable.

A 2014 University of Kansas Cancer Center study measured stress in 244 patients before and after a series of programs at Turning Point. They found Turning Point programs significantly decreased anxiety, depression and distress.

Which matters, Wright says, "because stress levels can be as debilitating as the illness itself."

Decreased stress and anxiety has been shown to influence recovery by helping the chronically ill better manage their pain, which could mean decreasing medication, which saves many patients money. 

Programs and support like this also helps maintain "normalcy," as cancer survivor Becky Steiner put it, which is the ultimate hope.

Andrea Tudhope is a reporter and producer for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at andreat@kcur.org.

Andrea Tudhope is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Kansas City, Missouri. She is currently coordinating producer for America Amplified, a national public media community engagement initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 
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