Inspiring Woman on a Mission: Debbie DiCarlo

women on a mission Oct 20, 2018

Debbie DiCarlo had already been involved in nonprofit leadership for more than 15 years in the Phoenix area when the cancer diagnosis of a dear friend led her to discover a fantastic nonprofit in her backyard - the Cancer Support Community Arizona (CSCAZ).

Her experience in the leadership of organizations like the Diocese of Phoenix and Catholic Charities put her in the unique position of truly understanding what made an organization like CSCAZ so special.

"I fell in love with the magic of this place when my friend came here to be part of their programs that helped her reduce stress and manage the pain and fatigue that comes with cancer and treatment,” Debbie said. “When the opportunity came up a few years later to be a part of this mission, I jumped at the chance.”

Before that, Debbie had been drawn particularly to organizations where there was a focus on social justice and eradicating poverty.

“I became extremely passionate about families who go about their days, as we all do, but are faced with many barriers to access to things some take for granted, such as high-quality education or healthcare and lowering the barriers to services,” she said.

Even her foray into the for-profit world drew on many her instincts as a nonprofit leader. She joined an insurance company in California for two years that was working on innovative programs to reduce insurance claims by building stronger and healthier neighborhoods. (For example, areas with meaningful afterschool programs have been shown to have fewer vandalism issues, which directly impacts insurers.)

Two years ago, Debbie brought all the skills she had garnered in her career to an organization as unique as she is.

Formerly known as The Wellness Community, Cancer Support Community was started in 1982 in Santa Monica, California, by Dr. Harold and Harriet Benjamin. When Harriet was diagnosed with cancer, she experienced a lack of resources and emotional support available for herself and her family. This motivated Benjamin, who was at that time a Hollywood lawyer, to pursue a medical degree and learn how to provide a “gold standard” of psychosocial oncology support to anyone impacted by cancer.

The Benjamins work was based on the belief that there is a strong connection between emotional and physical well-being, and they soon created their nonprofit to provide free social and emotional support to cancer patients and caregivers.

The core of the Cancer Support Community is its free programs that focus on five interconnected elements to support those facing cancer: emotional support, health & nutrition, education, social engagement, and resources & referrals to bring awareness of community resources to patients and their caregivers.

The Arizona affiliate opened in 1999 and now is one of 170 international affiliates for the program.

In Arizona, CSCAZ is located on a one-acre site dominated by the historic Ina Levine House, a beautiful 3,000-square-foot home built in 1908. Visitors are warmly greeted almost from the moment they step onto the oversized front porch, and there is an upbeat energy that lets people know that they will not have to take this journey on their own.

The campus provides an extensive cancer resource library, a relaxation garden, multiple therapeutic group rooms for seminars, educational and expressive art activities, and an exercise and wellness room often used for yoga, Tai Chi and other stress-reducing programs. There are nearly 100 monthly free programs designed to improve quality of life or survivorship, all led by licensed mental health professionals. It is also the only organization that provides emotional-social programs in Spanish in Arizona.

Debbie says that among her goals is to make CSCAZ truly a state-wide program by expanding its reach beyond Phoenix into other parts of Arizona, particularly its vast rural areas. “I am passionate about the mission,” she said, “but I am also passionate to try to make sure we are reaching enough people and have this conversation enough to replicate our work in areas that make sense for our state.”

She also wants to empower more cancer survivors by making them better educated about Survivorship Care Plans. Essentially, this is a plan of action for someone after they’ve completed their treatment. Debbie said that CSCAZ wants to help patients feel more empowered in the development and implementation of this vital process.

“I want everyone who participates in our programs to feel that they have the knowledge they need to ask the important questions and work with their doctors as they monitor and maintain their health after treatment,” she said.

The mission of CSCAZ is to ensure that all people impacted by cancer are empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action and sustained by community. Find out more about how they are meeting these goals here

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