Cancer Support Community South Bay’s Joey Shanahan Knew There Was Only One Way to Keep Supporting Participants During the Pandemic.

Change is good.

  • Category
    Health, People
  • Written by
    Amber Klinck
  • Photographed by
    Shane O’Donnell

It was early 2020 when Joey Shanahan took on the role of executive director for Cancer Support Community (CSC) South Bay. Originally known as The Wellness Community, the organization was founded in 1982 by Harold Benjamin in Santa Monica. In 1987, The Wellness Community-South Bay Cities opened its doors and then became Cancer Support Community Redondo Beach. 

Today the nonprofit is known as CSC South Bay to better reflect the broader community it serves. There are 175 CSC locations worldwide. 

For 34 years, CSC South Bay has provided free support services to cancer patients and their families from their location on the Redondo Beach Pier. 2022 marks CSC South Bay’s 35th anniversary, as well as the opening of its new location in the Rolling Hills Plaza in Torrance. 

The model for CSC services was in-person, peer-to-peer support. So when the COVID-19 pandemic hit—only two months after Joey joined the organization—the team at CSC South Bay had to change the way they were connecting with their community … and fast. 

“To even wrap our heads around how to move to a virtual world was pretty overwhelming,” she notes. “But we did it really quickly.” 

Within two weeks, all of CSC’s support groups were available on Zoom. Providing 200 support programs per month was a massive achievement and an invaluable resource for participants navigating cancer with the added uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. “Now sometimes when I look back, I’m kind of amazed at what a great job we were able to do,” she says.

For Joey, who has devoted her entire career to the nonprofit sector, joining CSC South Bay was an exciting opportunity. As someone who has lost a loved one to cancer, she appreciates the chance it’s given her to provide others with the kind of support she and her family could have used. 

“I was the sole caregiver of my father, who passed away in 2016 from esophageal cancer. That was my first close cancer experience,” she says. “When I learned of the Cancer Support Community, I thought, ‘Wow, I wish my father and I had known about this.’ As a caregiver of somebody with cancer, you do the best you possibly can to try to understand how they’re feeling. It’s impossible. If you haven’t had cancer yourself, it’s really impossible to know what they’re going through.”

Being able to communicate with people navigating similar experiences creates a safe space for open and honest expression. “My father was not the kind of guy who wanted to talk about his feelings, but I did find that when he was at the hospital for chemo and he would meet other people with cancer, all of a sudden he was the talkative guy he had never been before,” shares Joey. “If we had something like Cancer Support Community, I think he really would’ve participated. It would’ve been so beneficial for his mental health, his anxiety, his frustration with the whole process and the unknown to have somebody to talk to about treatment decisions that were being made, emotions that he was having around that and how to interact with his family.”

Expanding the reach of CSC South Bay so everyone who needs cancer support is aware of the programs available is important. But so is making sure everyone who needs CSC’s support has access to it. Ironically, the challenges presented by the pandemic have opened the doors to virtual support programs, giving access to participants unable to attend in person. 

“It’s been a silver lining, which is just incredible and totally unexpected,” Joey shares. “Nowhere on my radar was serving participants virtually. It wasn’t even a conversation before COVID.” 

For participants who may be too sick to come in, are under hospice care, don’t drive or live in underserved communities, virtual support is invaluable. And Joey only sees it getting better. “We’re going to be here for the long haul. We’re so fortunate. This is such a wonderful community. We have so many wonderful supporters and generous donors. To be able to do this is an honor and a privilege.”