On December 7, 2015, Pearl Harbor Day, a very different kind of bomb dropped on Lori Mangum and her family. A small bump on her forehead that doctors had previously assured her was “nothing,” was actually cancer.
Mangum, now 35, said her doctor told her it was a type of sarcoma, and it was impossible for him to tell how far it had spread or how deep it went, so she would need surgery as soon as possible.
On Christmas Eve, 2015, Mangum underwent the first of what would be nine surgeries over as many months related to the sarcoma. Mangum endured skin grafts, and plastic inserts and saline injections that slowly stretched the skin. “The surgeon tricked my body into growing a new scalp for me,” but that led to some pretty significant temporary disfigurement.
At the time, Mangum was working with children as the director of a local foster care program and the children’s responses were typically frank. “They said ‘What’s wrong with your face’ and ‘Your head is growing,’ and we made jokes about it,” she said.
Introduction to Gilda’s Club
With the philosophy of “Living with cancer is not a choice, but how you live with it is,” Mangum said. Gilda’s Club was “a huge part of learning that I could choose to live with cancer – with style, with joy, with purpose and, yes, with laughter.” She was introduced to the clubhouse two months after diagnosis by a friend. Gilda’s Club Louisville, at 633 Baxter Avenue, is a free program of support designed for those living with cancer. It’s named in memory of Saturday Night Live comedienne Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Radner dreamed of creating places like Gilda’s Club – safe, warm, welcoming, home-like environments for families to safely share and explore their cancer journeys.
Gilda’s Club Louisville offers a wide array of services to those who have been touched by cancer – those with a diagnosis, survivors, caregivers, family members, and friends. Program offerings include support groups, education, resources and referrals, healthy lifestyle and social activities.
Highly skeptical at first, Mangum didn’t think Gilda’s Club would be helpful. “I didn’t want to sit in a circle once a week and talk about how much cancer sucks,” she said. “But that’s not what it was at all.”
Mangum started going to a support group and found it “such a refreshing thing to be understood, to be able to talk to people about the quirks of cancer. How do you date when you’re in the middle of this? It’s just not an icebreaker,” Mangum joked. “What do you do? I work at a foster care agency and I have cancer. We talked about those kinds of things.”
Gilda’s Club was also there for Mangum’s parents who attended their own caregiver support group on the same night as their daughter, who lived with them during her surgery cycles. “We made friends there and still see them today outside of Gilda’s, said Mangum.
One of the many things that makes Gilda Club’s a special place is the warm ambience, said Mangum. “When you go to Gilda’s, it just feels like family – like a little sanctuary. There is always laughter and people smiling. It’s hard to be in a bad frame of mind when you walk in there.”
Mangum also appreciated the chance to do “normal” things like sponsored outings to the Nutcracker with a Gilda’s group. “When you’re going through cancer, you don’t think about those kinds of fun things, and you’re not prioritizing money that way. You may not even be too excited about going out in public, but you could go together in this safe community. It was very meaningful to us to be able to do those fun things without that financial burden,” she said.
Mangum said the real foundation of Gilda’s Club is about facilitating connections with other people. “You have a daily reminder that, yes, you have cancer but not only are you not alone, you get to choose how you live with cancer. You don’t have to be reclusive and plan your funeral. It’s ok to laugh, have fun, meet new people, and enjoy life. Here I am coming up on three years and I can say now that cancer gave me more than it took,” she said.
Today, Mangum has a new job as a content coordinator for the online website YES Louisville. She said it “gives her the chance to talk with and inspire people and tell their stories.” Her cancer prognosis is positive. She still suffers some side effects such as chronic headaches, but is focusing on giving to other people living with cancer as a fundraising and event volunteer for Gilda’s Club.
“It’s become my personal mission. I have so much gratitude for what Gilda’s has given me. Now I have the opportunity to help grow a place that I know is badly needed in our city. I want to tell everybody that the second you are diagnosed, you should go to Gilda’s Club.”