Bridging Generations of Care: Alexa Hoffman’s Story

Bridging Generations of Care: Alexa Hoffman’s Story

Alexa Hoffman picking peaches with wife, Steph Ross.

Alexa Hoffman’s experience with cancer was unique, like so many who go through this journey. When her mother was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, her family knew that they needed to be there for her. This time around the diagnosis was bile duct cancer.

Alexa quickly moved from Massachusetts to Maryland and her mother moved from New Jersey to Maryland. Since her sister lived in Maryland, it was the easiest way for them all to be close to one another and provide support.

What they didn’t realize right away is that their mother would miss all her friends from back home. She wanted the support of a social network and remembered the value she got from a support group in New Jersey when she was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years earlier.

Thankfully, her journey took her to Wellness House, where we were able to care for her. Her treatment provider advocated for the support services at Wellness House, and she recognized the value in these services from her prior experience with cancer. At first, the family wanted their mother to have complete ownership of her experience with Wellness House, but they quickly realized that she wanted them to be there, too. She would regularly encourage them to attend some of the services with her and they also found value in the Caregivers Support Group.

Her mother’s favorite activity was Tea Time at Our House, which was moved to a virtual Zoom session over the course of the pandemic. “She enjoyed Tea Time so much. I did go with her once because she really wanted it, and I could not deny her much of anything. It was almost like the non-alcoholic version
of Cheers. She was able to walk in, people knew her name, you know? She was like a popular classmate,
and it just made me really happy,” said Alexa.

Alexa was so grateful to have these connections, especially after her mom passed. She received several messages from the members who had become friends and had sent her cards. Alexa felt this beautiful connection and knew she wasn’t the only one who missed her mom. “The Wellness House facilitated the
kinds of connections that would make me feel like other people got to see her without the cancer, being
all she was.” Alexa and her family cherished Tea Time so much that they chose to donate funds to help
facilitate this service and to spread joy to others diagnosed with cancer.

What Alexa did not see coming next was her own cancer diagnosis. She was diagnosed with breast cancer just shy of a month before her 39th birthday and joined Where Young Adults (YA) Meet Support Group at Wellness House, available to members who are 18-45 years old. “I have found that to be extremely valuable, not something that I feel like I have to do, but something I want to do,” said Alexa.

Alexa has also found the therapeutic art classes to be extremely helpful in easing the stress of navigating this difficult situation. “I loved the fact that we just did art on the Zoom calls and there wasn’t a ton of conversation. You explained your art at the end. The quality of my art might not have been very good, but the action was the journey, not the end state.”

Alexa further shares her gratitude for her experience with Wellness House being therapeutic for her and also for her relationship with her mother. She witnessed her mother being truly appreciated for the unique person she was and joining with others before departing from this life. “She found energy in connecting with others, especially with those who were going through something similar to her. It gave her an opportunity to be the vibrant person that she was at her core by spending time with people and not necessarily talking about cancer treatment.”

Alexa Hoffman is happily married to her wife of 5 years, Steph Ross, and currently lives in Maryland. In her career, she is a Senior Director of Global Distribution Products for Cision in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area. Her diagnosis came at the beginning of March 2020 and her first surgery was at the end of that month. She is now on hormone therapy and continuing her process of recovery.

Jacob’s Journey to Wellness House

Jacob’s Journey to Wellness House

Jacob Tribull, Wellness House Member & Volunteer

Why Members Make Good Volunteers 

Jacob Tribull, Wellness House member and volunteer, spoke with us regarding his involvement as a counselor in our kids’ summer camp and his own father’s experience with cancer. Jacob went to St. Mary’s High School in Annapolis. It was there he met an admissions counselor named Tina Allen who was very involved in volunteering at Wellness House of Annapolis.  

He explained his own passion for volunteering that developed after his sister was hit by a car at the age of 7 leaving her disabled. Jacob recalled his memory of growing up in a rehabilitation environment and being passionate about this type of volunteer work. Tina’s interest was piqued by Jacob’s experience with his sister and with volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore. She saw an instant parallel between these experiences and the work of Wellness House. 

Tina graciously offered to introduce him to the staff, and a connection was instantly made. “What was really interesting is that this was before my own family’s experience with cancer. I had volunteered for two summer camps before my dad was diagnosed with cancer,” said Jacob.  

His father started getting sick around 2018 after Jacob had been volunteering at Wellness House. Jacob describes a visit that they were on to check out a potential college. “My dad was constantly getting sick. We were on a recruiting visit, and my dad passed out and got really sick. We came home the next day after that visit, and he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.” 

From 2018 to the end of 2019, Jacob’s father battled many issues resulting from the cancer. During this time, Jacob expanded beyond volunteering to participate in our services as a member at the Wellness House. He learned different ways of coping with the stress from his father’s diagnosis and turning it into something positive.  

Watching the kids in camp is something that inspired him to become more resilient. “There is really a heightened level of maturity with the kids that I’ve seen at these camps compared to other camps that I’ve worked at in the summer. You can see that when the parents come to pick up the kids, the kids already have their backpacks on like they’re ready to go,” said Jacob. He noticed that the kids had no problem transitioning from their normal day-to-day activities to supporting their family members who were experiencing a cancer diagnosis. 

Wellness House offered Jacob many things as a member, but what he didn’t expect was to also learn from the kids as a volunteer camp counselor. “I was doing a lot of things for my dad. I learned how to mix his medicines, how to prepare different bandages for him, and all of the stuff that comes along with cancer. I was also able to learn to use what I use with the kids at the camp, to flip that switch. For example, when it was my senior night, and my dad had been released from the hospital, I was able to flip the switch and walk him across the field and back off the field back into the stands.” When Jacob says “flip that switch,” he is referring to having to pivot from the role of a child into the role of caretaker or supportive family member of someone diagnosed with cancer.  

He describes how juggling the responsibilities that come along with cancer is just as important as not letting them consume your life. Jacob said, “People don’t realize that you can still have a life outside of cancer, especially as a family member dealing with it.”  

In 2019 his father was finally declared cancer-free after a 13-hour long surgery, but unfortunately, this past year he was re-diagnosed following a CT scan of his liver that was performed after a car accident. The doctors found that the cancer had metastasized to his liver, so he is now back in chemotherapy.  

Jacob and his family continue to be hopeful, volunteering and relying on the services and support of Wellness House of Annapolis throughout their journey with cancer. Jacob said, “You can trust these people at this house. Everyone’s going through the same thing you’re going through, so it provides an awesome support network of people that want to help.” 
Jacob Tribull plays division 3 football at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and is also studying biomedical engineering. He has a minor in chemistry and is currently on track to specialize in pre-med with the goal to eventually go to medical school. When he’s not playing football or studying, he’s spending time with his family, helping with errands and cooking meals.  

Controlling What You Can: Nutrition and Wellness with Tina Hinchman

Controlling What You Can: Nutrition and Wellness with Tina Hinchman

Tina Hinchman, Wellness House Volunteer and Nutritionist

Taking back as much control as you can in life is one of the key ideas that Tina Hinchman, nutritionist, and Wellness House volunteer, focuses on in her own health and wellness journey. As someone diagnosed with two health conditions herself, Tina focuses on how she can integrate healthy lifestyle changes that can mitigate or eliminate the negative aspects of these conditions. 

One diagnosis is a condition called idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, commonly referred to as ITP, which is a rare autoimmune disorder in which a person’s blood does not clot properly because the immune system destroys the blood-clotting platelets. The other diagnosis is Hashimoto’s disease, a condition where your immune system attacks your thyroid, a small gland at the base of the neck below the Adam’s apple. The thyroid is responsible for coordinating many of your body’s functions including your metabolism.  

“I got prescribed medicine for my thyroid, started working with a hematologist for my ITP, and that’s what really triggered my research into exercise and nutrition. I got my certifications pretty quickly, in 2014 I was a certified personal trainer, 6 months later I got certified as a health coach, and about a year later, around 2015, I got my certification as a holistic integrative nutritionist,” says Tina.  

Her goal from this point forward was to help people, specifically women around her age with autoimmune disorders, to understand a diet that will optimize their well-being specifically in line with their condition. That’s when Tina encountered the Wellness House. At the time she was still working a corporate job in addition to working as a nutritionist and was looking for an opportunity to volunteer with her team. As a part of their annual volunteer initiative, they stumbled onto one of Wellness House’s cleanup events.  

“I took my whole team, and we went out and I immediately felt a connection to the place. I just felt it had such a healing presence and I asked a lot of questions about the practitioners and how they got involved. I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is a great place to volunteer when I start my business as a nutritionist full time,’” says Tina. Shortly thereafter she approached the Wellness House to offer her services for free as a nutritionist, which were graciously accepted.  

Today, Tina works with us as a volunteer, providing nutritional expertise through classes and seminars with members, as well as connecting with them on a personal level. She volunteers a few hours of her time a month to provide education to members, which she loves doing.  

Tina’s main advice to anyone looking to improve their health and wellness through nutrition is to focus on five key areas of their life. She tells us, “Your diet, exercise, sleep, stress level, and spirituality. When you think about these five key areas, that I focus on as an integrative nutritionist, it’s not just about the food, it’s also these key areas of your life that need to be balanced for optimal health.” These five areas are really in your control, and although they may feel overwhelming, there are many small steps you can take to get yourself into a balance that you can successfully manage. 

Tina Hinchman is a multifaceted health and wellness professional, health coach, integrative nutritionist, personal trainer, and kitchen maven. She is currently finishing her master’s in clinical nutrition. Her specialties are helping people stay healthy, active, and vibrant through midlife and beyond. Tina is also a mother and active member of the Annapolis community who graciously donates her time to the benefit of Wellness House of Annapolis and our members.  

The Science and the Art of Oncology

The Science and the Art of Oncology

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Dr. Benjamin Bridges, Maryland Oncology Hematology

In a recent meeting with Dr. Benjamin Bridges of Maryland Oncology Hematology (MOH), Wellness House of Annapolis learned about his passion for science. As he described his journey in oncology, he shared that he had met his wife while they studied together at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine. Dr. Bridges and his wife later moved to Maryland, where he completed his Internal Medicine Residency at University of Maryland Medical Systems.   

Dr. Bridges described his experience with cancer in his family, “When I was a first-year resident, my grandfather got lung cancer. So, I got a first-hand experience seeing the world that a cancer patient lives in,” said Dr. Bridges. This connection presented an opportunity to be involved from someone who had expertise in the science, as well as the personal side of a family member’s experience.  

He further explained, “When he got the diagnosis, I was to a certain extent involved with his care as the medical person in the family who could talk to his doctors and get the real story about what was going on. I saw how the cancer affected him and the rest of my family. This led to my next steps, during my second and third year of residency, when I rotated through the Cancer Center at University of Maryland a couple of times.”  

His impressive work continued, along with his passion, working in the field of oncology, which eventually took him to Boise, Idaho where he was Director of Early Phase Research at Mountain States Tumor Institute. He continued his career in oncological research, becoming Principal Investigator in the Pacific Cancer Research Consortium in conjunction with the National Cancer Institute, the Swedish Cancer Institute in Seattle, Washington, and the Providence Cancer Institute in Portland, Oregon. 

After completing research projects in Boise, Dr. Bridges and his wife contemplated where they could live the life that they wanted, while contributing to a robust medical community at the forefront of cancer therapies. They determined that the Maryland area would be the best option for them, and he joined the staff at Maryland Oncology Hematology.  

After joining MOH, he learned about the significant and positive impact Wellness House had on his cancer patients. He was able to see first-hand how patients were given the additional support and motivation they needed to withstand the arduous cancer treatment programs.  

He shared one of his first experiences with the Wellness House with a young patient of his, who was going through chemotherapy prior to breast cancer surgery. He found that Wellness House’s services were instrumental in her ability to get through the treatment and negative side effects. “She experienced this at a time where she also had young children. I think it really provided the additional support that my clinic could not have given to her,” Dr. Bridges explains. 

“Mainly, she participated in a lot of the guided meditation classes that you guys do, and it really allowed her to cope with the chemotherapy and the difficult things that she had to get through. I suspect if she had not had those classes available to her, it would have been much more difficult for her to get through the treatment,” said Dr. Bridges.  

Dr. Benjamin Bridges of Maryland Oncology Hematology is married and lives in Crownsville with his wife and St. Bernard. He is extremely active in MOH’s clinical research program, publishing research articles in numerous peer-reviewed journals in the areas of lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, and prostate cancer with a major clinical interest in lung cancer and gastrointestinal cancer.

A Full Spectrum of Care Without the Additional Financial Burden

A Full Spectrum of Care Without the Additional Financial Burden

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Dr. David Weng, Maryland Oncology Hematology

Wellness House recently spoke with Dr. Weng about the importance of our partnership with Maryland Oncology Hematology. “The partnership between the Wellness House and Maryland Oncology Hematology in Annapolis is really one of the highlights of our relationship with our community. The Wellness House represents a tremendous resource for the community and the patients that we serve,” says Dr. David Weng of Maryland Oncology Hematology (MOH).

The proud son of two immigrant parents, whose mother arrived in the United States from France by way of Ellis Island, Dr. David Weng lived in several states before settling in the area. He was born in Chicago, but grew up in Michigan, where he left to attend Harvard in Boston and earn his bachelor’s degree in biochemical sciences. His education continued, along with his travels, to Maryland where he earned his M.D. and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He went on to a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health with a focus on research in new cancer therapies.

He later joined the staff at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where he spent 8 years as a breast cancer specialist and was involved in clinical and laboratory research. He found that he really enjoyed doing research on behalf of his patients to help them find new options for care. Dr. Weng saw how he could make an even greater impact with his patients, learning more about cancer research and gaining expertise for developing new therapies.

Around 2014 he returned to Maryland to practice oncology and joined the group of doctors, nurses, and staff that comprise MOH. When asked what he enjoys about his profession, he described his appreciation for being a member of a team of doctors committed to quality of care and having the best cancer therapies available for patients. He takes pride in taking care of each patient as a whole person with an emphasis on the impact it has on their family. As he describes, that is where Wellness House enters the picture.

Additionally, he states, “What Wellness House has that isn’t easily available in a lot of other areas is this focus on building a personal community for a patient, because that’s really disrupted by any disease condition. People feel very isolated because of all the issues that occur, impacting their physical, mental and social health, and family relationships,” says Dr. Weng.

He goes on to explain how Wellness House removes the financial barriers that sometimes exist to prevent access to community resources and explains, “The fact that patients can participate in the services of Wellness House without any financial cost is really tremendous because one of the most difficult things about any disease is the strain on the financial health of a family, including the disruption of their work, as well as the new charges and bills that come as a result of all the care that is needed. Cancer can cost individuals tens of thousands of dollars out-of-pocket, depending on insurance coverage. This leaves many families struggling to pay medical bills with little money left over to invest in palliative care and wellness services that are so important to a patient’s recovery.”

Reducing the anxiety about financial costs of the palliative care and wellness services is part of feeling comfortable using the service. Wellness House also responds to wherever the need is, providing a full spectrum of services, wherever someone is on their cancer journey.

Dr. David Weng of Maryland Oncology Hematology specializes in oncology and earned his medical and Ph.D. degrees from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He grew up in Michigan, the proud son of two immigrant parents, and became involved in oncology, initially to focus on developing new cancer therapies. He is happily married with 5 teenagers, including triplets.

Pride Month: Inclusion and Cancer Treatment

Pride Month: Inclusion and Cancer Treatment

Wellness House of Annapolis spoke with Jacqueline Shanahan of Maryland Oncology Hematology – Annapolis about inclusion and cancer treatment for Pride month. In our recent interview, we asked, “What’s the most important thing for individuals identifying as LGBTQ+ to know about seeking medical care when experiencing a cancer diagnosis?”  

Jackie explained that the answer can be complicated. She pointed out that while we have made some strides for the LGBTQ+ community, we still find that individuals that identify as LGBTQ+ sometimes find that there is discrimination and institutional bias when it comes to healthcare. As a result, these individuals might be diagnosed at a later stage of their cancer due to fear of engaging with the medical services that they require.  

On a good note, Jackie shared that both Maryland Oncology Hematology (MOH) and Wellness House of Annapolis (“Wellness House”) are welcoming environments, and both focus on delivering support to patients that is warm and helpful. Regardless of the patient’s identity, MOH and Wellness House look at the whole person and continue support through treatment and into survivorship.  

MOH focuses on educating patients about screening and other vital procedures as they travel on their journey managing their cancer diagnosis.  MOH is striving to utilize sexual orientation and gender identity data – SOGI data – to provide high-quality, patient-centered care for all their patients. The SOGI data provides a better picture of the patient’s susceptibility to certain types of cancer, as well as effective and preferred treatment options. This data informs medical institutions about appropriate care for their patients, taking into consideration all the aspects of their identity.  

The experienced team at MOH knows from first-hand experience that LGBTQ individuals are at higher risk for certain types of cancer. For example, Jackie shares, “Gay men are at a higher risk for anal and colon cancer. Screenings can certainly lead to being diagnosed at an earlier stage.” She goes on to advise, “The most important thing you can do is to talk to your physician openly and honestly. If there are any red flags at all, you should look for another provider. Your treatment relies on the relationship that you have with the physician.” 

When asked about how we can improve outcomes for LGBTQ+ patients engaged in oncology treatment, Jackie says, “It’s really just education of both the general population and medical community when it comes to collecting this data. Things are getting better, but communication is key, it’s a two-way street with the patient and their physician.”  

Jacqueline Shanahan is a Certified Oncology Nurse with Maryland Oncology Hematology. She spends every day, and many nights and weekends caring for her oncology patients. Her focus is on the patient and ensuring that they receive the care and attention that they deserve. 

Some Days I Need the Music and Some Days I Need the Lyrics

Some Days I Need the Music and Some Days I Need the Lyrics

“Some days I need the music and some days I need the lyrics.” – Unknown

Do you have a favorite lyric? Are there words you wait for with bright, almost childlike anticipation when you listen to your favorite song? I’ve got one, it comes from a little-known Elton John song with lyrics written by the great Bernie Taupin, John’s longtime lyricist. The song is called “Blues for Baby and Me”. It’s a simple song, with a clear message, at least for me. Listening to it, I imagine waking up early on a clear, but cool, summer morning. I pack a bag, and leave everything behind…to begin again, alone, to the west.

The lyric is this:

It’s all over now, don’t you worry no more
We’re gonna go west to the sea
The Greyhound is waiting, and the radio is playing
Some blues for baby and me

And the highway looks like she never did
Lord it looks so sweet and so free
And I can’t forget that trip to the west
Singing blues for baby and me

Now, I can’t tell you why those words move me so much, but they do. When I hear them, I remember myself. I dissolve into a world of one. A world of peace and surrender that resonates within my body. In my mind I am on a bus, alone with the window open. I’m breathing fresh air from the high desert, clean and warm. The sun is setting in the sky.

I am free.

We all know that words are powerful. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of harsh words from someone you love, you know what I mean. Words stick. Some words will even live in our minds, maybe even our hearts and souls, forever. Lyrics are simply words that are linked to another powerful form of communication: music. So… lyrics are not just words. Lyrics are poetry bound to sound, and they are changed by the unique way they intertwine with musical energy. They are designed to move you in an emotional, physical and spiritual level. Therefore, simple words on a paper, when met with the right music, can change the world. Indeed, it has. Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples of how lyrics influenced history:

Star Spangled Banner – Francis Scott Key wrote a poem after he witnessed the Maryland fort being bombarded by the British during the War of 1812. Later it was set to music and in 1931 became America’s national anthem.

We Shall Overcome – This song, with roots in the African American church, became synonymous with the civil rights movement. When Bob Seeger and other famous folksingers in the early 1960s, such as Joan Baez, sang the song at rallies, folk festivals, and concerts in the north, they helped promote the song to a national level. Since its rise to prominence, the song, and songs based on it, have been used in a variety of protests worldwide.

Feed the World / Band Aid This song has become synonymous with the plight of millions of starving African children. The song so captured people’s attention that the response to subsequent disasters has been different and millions of have benefitted because of it.

I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing / Coke Song – This jingle was so popular that it was rewritten into a full-length song and now everyone knows the difference between Coca-Cola and Pepsi. I prefer Coke, just saying.

The point is… words have power. Words, mingled with music, have magical powers. This magic can cross the boundaries of fear, loss, pain, sadness, and loneliness. Allow yourself to be moved by the magic. Open yourself up, to being moved and changed by lyrics. You can access it anytime you want and become a part of it.

Music and lyrics can change your heart, which in turn can change your mind. And when you change your mind, you change your world. As the song Imagine goes:

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope one day you’ll join me
And the world will be as one

John Lennon, there’s a guy who knew the power of a good lyric. Now go find the magic.

Terri Fevang joined the Wellness House of Annapolis team as Program & Development Director in the summer of 2020 to support the enhancement and development of our adult, child, and family support programs. Terri is also a music composer and certified music practitioner (CMP)/therapeutic musician, and a graduate of The Music for Healing and Transition Program (MHTP), a certification program that trains musicians in the art and science of using the transformative healing power of music at the bedside of the sick and dying.

Wellness House and MBSR

Wellness House and MBSR


The benefits of meditation have been well documented in many studies and something that most of you already know. Meditation reduces stress, it helps control anxiety, and lengthens your attention span. One of its best features is boosting meditators’ emotional and mental health, something that is paramount for anyone dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

Phebe Duff is a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) facilitator and meditation practitioner based in Annapolis, MD. MBSR is an eight-week educational course based on mindfulness techniques. This course allows individuals a viewpoint that is separate from their thoughts about the stressful event. In these courses, people learn to examine their emotions without judgment to see them instead as mental events. Wellness House of Annapolis saw the potential benefits of MBSR and invited Phebe to pilot the course with its members.

Phebe taught MBSR for more than fifteen years and until three years ago, she was never involved in leading a group of people diagnosed with cancer. She noticed the stress of these individuals was more acute than any she experienced before as a practitioner.

“Wellness House was a unique experience for me at that time. These are people who have looked death and trauma in the face.”

What started out as an exercise became one of the programs offered at Wellness House of Annapolis. MBSR is an 8-week program, and the beauty of it is witnessing the change that occurs in members both physically and mentally. With any type of meditation, giving in and being able to let go of control is the key. This is challenging for almost anyone but can be especially difficult for those facing a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment. However, the difficulty individuals undergo during this time is precisely why this program is so vital.

“Members come out the other end of MBSR as transformed people. What meditation and mindfulness bring to them is a way to feel more in control of their life. To be able to say, ‘Yes, this terrible thing has happened to me, but I do not have to let it define me. I can now relate to it in a completely different way.’”

One of the most exciting things for Phebe is watching the change in members as they progress through the program. “The first thing you notice is they begin to sleep better. The wrinkles lessen. All of a sudden, about halfway through, there becomes a joy, a release. They begin to see the results of this class. It becomes very clear and prominent.”

The result of MBSR is an understanding that while someone may be afflicted with a cancer diagnosis, they do not have to give in to their fear, they can still control their lives. As Phebe explains it, “You see it in their faces. Members go from being totally overwhelmed by their diagnosis, treatment and their future, to deciding this diagnosis would not define them or their lives. A philosophy takes over of: Ok. This is my life right now. I’m going to live the best life that I can.”

Through the process of the first MBSR program at Wellness House of Annapolis, and in subsequent programs, Phebe saw something she never experienced in other MBSR classes. She saw that even though these people went through different cancer diagnoses and procedures, they all experienced cancer together. It created a bond.

“I began to see people caring for others in the group. Not like a support group, but something more long term. A thought process of ‘We are going to support each other after this class ends.’” Friendships and bonds form and extend far past the end of the class and continue to be sources of intimate connection and support for members that participate.

Over the years, the MBSR program at Wellness House of Annapolis not only transformed the members, it transformed Phebe. “These people are amazing. They are so open to exploring every facet of their life. They are not the people they were before their cancer diagnosis. Through the class, Wellness House members go to a lot of places mentally and emotionally. I never experienced that with other meditation groups.”

Phebe Duff is a certified MBSR instructor with over 10 years of experience teaching this method and researching its benefits. She is a long-time meditator who has led sitting groups and meditation classes for 20 years. Currently, Phebe instructs online classes for the Wellness House of Annapolis every Monday.

The Silver Lining

The Silver Lining

Artwork by Liz Carren, Member, Wellness House of Annapolis

“I am a big believer in mind and body. I knew I had to have a good attitude. No one was more freaked out about my cancer diagnosis and with a worse attitude than me. I was so demolished by the news.”

Liz Carren has always been a creative person, a positive person, an artist and illustrator living in Annapolis, MD. She has produced artwork for years involving the space where unique stories and joyful art come together, celebrating wellness and the earth. In between the time spent working at Apple and her artwork, Liz developed a pet project that would become her passion called, “Botanical Beauties and Beasties.”

The project began out of environmental concern, and morphed to include many other characters, 35 now in total. It is a mystical world where the mantra is kindness, and it is something Liz has worked on for the last 10 years until her world changed in the fall of 2020.

Liz was diagnosed with stage III endometrial cancer. The cancer diagnosis was enough to distract her focus from Botanical Beauties and Beasties as Liz entered the uncharted waters of a cancer diagnosis.

“My way of coping with any issue has always been to create art. So, when this cancer happened, I knew I wanted to make some kind of art around it to document it.” The problem was that Liz needed a clear mind to create her art, and now it was anything but clear.

“I really didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do or how to do it.”

Liz’s cousin Claudia, a cancer survivor herself, suggested Liz use artwork to describe her experience and as a way to gain greater control over her emotions.

“It’s the silver lining of me having cancer. Cancer changed my artwork significantly. It allowed me to begin abstract work.”

“My first thought was one of a healing light. I could see it in my mind’s eye. It was a white light, kind of cycling, that’s the only way I can describe it and what started the whole process. I kept seeing it, and finally said ‘This is something I need to draw.’” She used high-resolution digital illustrations to create the first piece and has used this method ever since.

“That’s what started the whole thing and then all the tests and machines, everything started happening, and all the fear came with it.”

After the diagnosis, Liz spoke with her acupuncturist, Peter, and they discussed how visualization aids those undergoing a cancer diagnosis. She further described her next art project, “My 2nd project was a visualization of acupuncture. How it feels and how it’s supposed to be helping me, it’s still one of my favorites. From there, I opened up and began to process all of this visually.”

“CAT Scans, MRI’s, PET Scans, all the fear and drugs, the chemotherapy, and my having to deal with it all. I decided to draw the machines, but not draw the machine as what it looked like, instead to draw what it looked like and what it felt like, my own reaction to what the machine was doing to me. “

“And somewhere, somehow, I flipped from being a hundred thousand percent miserable and scared out of my mind, to an incredibly positive person with a positive attitude. Honestly, I have no idea how that manifested itself. I wish I could bottle it and sell it because it’s gold. I do know the artwork and creative process dug me out of so many of the holes I was in.”

As the artwork evolved, she saw it not just as her therapy, but another way to describe to others what she was going through. “I wanted people to understand, see, and feel what I was going through. And it was not just for cancer patients. I wanted my friends to understand a little bit better.”

These days, Liz is continuing her treatment and hopeful to get back to work at Apple, and on her Beasties as soon as she can. You can view her breathtaking work on the Botanical BB Instagram page (@botanicalbb).

Just One More Test

Just One More Test

Pictured above: Schmitt Family

“Just one more test.”

It was June 24th, 2015, and Emily Karcher Schmitt saw her doctor for what was supposed to be a routine appointment. Emily was being monitored for another non-cancer-related health issue, a benign lump in her breast, and was having some testing done.

“So much of my story is divine intervention. It was the monitoring of that benign lump that led to the discovery of my cancer. Decisions were made to not remove that lump. We discussed removing it. For some reason, we decided not to.”

And if it were not for that decision, to NOT remove that benign fatty lump, Emily’s cancer might not have been discovered until it was too late.

On that June date, Emily’s doctor, after performing all the routine tests, for reasons even she does not understand, still was not convinced. The scans and ultrasounds all looked normal, but something was not right. She suggested getting one more test, a high-resolution ultrasound.
“You are fine. All is good. Let’s do one more test, and you can go live your life…”

And there it was:
It was bad.
It was large.
And completely hidden.

“It looked like an octopus. No matter how many times I got a scan, no matter how many times I got an ultrasound, it didn’t matter. It was hiding.”

Everything went incredibly fast after that.

“Our choice was simple. In fact, there was no choice. To survive, you must begin this treatment immediately.”

At the time, Emily’s children were 2, 4, and 6 years old. She was about to celebrate her 10th wedding anniversary and now, they were all about to go through cancer together. Emily and her husband not only had to deal with this life-threatening situation, but their three young children were about to see their mom in quite a different light. “We were very concerned about what to say to the kids. How would they deal with this? How would WE deal with this?”

Emily begins her treatment:
Breast cancer.
Double mastectomy.

“Fast forward; I am in a wig shop in Annapolis. This is where I would first hear about Wellness House. It was the program they had called, ‘Look Good, Feel Better,’ and I remember wanting so much to be that, and to be a part of that program.”

Emily had a close friend, Tara, whose mother had gone through cancer. Tara’s mother was also a Wellness House member. As the conversation shifted to their children, Emily fell back to how concerned she and her husband were about the kids, and how they were handling what she was going through.

Tara told Emily about the Wellness House of Annapolis, specifically their Paint Your Rainbow Summer Camp. Tara had just signed her kids up to participate in the camp to help them deal with their grandmother’s cancer diagnosis.

Emily thought about this opportunity after speaking to Tara and about sending her children to the summer camp. “I am the kind of person who isn’t the first to do anything. Even though this was all so new to me, I felt my kids could benefit from this.”

The response, and result of the Wellness House kids’ camp, was immediate for the entire family. “It took one day for us to realize what an amazing experience the Wellness House provides. My kids were, and still are, so excited to be a part of everything they have to offer. It continues to be a feeling of, ‘This is too good to be true. How on earth is this free? How can it be this all-encompassing good feeling, with no strings attached?’”

Programs like Paint Your Rainbow Summer Camp and Kidz Coping helped her children connect with other kids who were going through or had gone through exactly what they were going through. As the Schmitt family went through this process, it opened a brand-new world up to them, one of selflessness and giving. The Wellness House of Annapolis is an organization explicitly designed to help people like the Schmitt family – one that lets those dealing with a cancer diagnosis know that they are not alone in their struggle.

“Going through cancer, you realize there are these groups where you feel like YOU are the lucky ones. You don’t wish cancer on your worst enemy. As unlucky as you are to be going through the fear and trauma of the cancer experience, you wish everyone could have access to groups like this. The fact is that they are not just fun, encouraging, and backed by therapy, they’re also amazing.”

“Everyone talks of 2020 being the worst year, and it certainly was, but 2015 was our 2020. Everything that could go wrong went wrong and I felt my kids needed something like this. To be surrounded by other kids, to be supported by an organization like this. They made an immediate bond with the other kids in the program. I remember seeing the counselors giving my kids piggyback rides, and my response was to call my husband and tell him, ‘You will never believe this place. It was exactly what they needed.’”

Emily Karcher Schmitt is a Crofton-based photographer and owner of Picture the Good: Studio & Workshop. She is the proud mother of three kids, now 7, 9, and 11 years old respectively, and she has been married for 15 years and counting.