Gilda's Club Seattle, marking 10 years at its Seattle location, a former funeral home on Broadway, now has 20,000 members.

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Rachel Clark of Issaquah was 8 years old when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Less than nine months later, Rachel stood by a hospice bed, unable to find words as her mother drew her final labored breaths.

Cancer can be like that.

Jerry Liebermann of Seattle was 22 when a tooth extraction that wouldn’t stop bleeding led to the diagnosis of his leukemia. Doctors gave him three years to live. But, while he’s had remissions, relapses, rough days and painful moments, he’s still around, 33 years later.

Cancer can be like that, too.

Although their experiences are markedly different, Clark and Liebermann both say cancer always will be part of their lives.

They share something else as well: Gilda’s Club.

Ten years ago this week, Gilda’s Club Seattle held its grand opening in the 1911-vintage colonial-style building, constructed as a funeral home with imposing white columns at the corner of Broadway and East Union Street.

The club, now with 20,000 members, hosts support sessions, meetings, lectures, movies, meals, concerts, art groups, yoga and exercise classes and more.

“Gilda’s Club isn’t about whether you’re going to die from your cancer, it’s about how you’re going to live while you have cancer,” said Liebermann, 56.

The club’s namesake, “Saturday Night Live” comedian Gilda Radner, died of ovarian cancer in 1989.

Seattle’s was the 14th Gilda’s Club formed nationally; now there are 28 in the U.S. and Canada.

Rachel Clark, 16, hadn’t heard of Gilda Radner before Marianne Schneider, Clark’s mother, was diagnosed in 2004 with a cancer so advanced it wasn’t clear where in her body it had originated.

And when a hospital social worker suggested that visiting Gilda’s Club might be helpful, not just for Marianne but for the whole family, Rachel didn’t see the point.

“I was opposed to coming here,” she said. “When someone has cancer, you kind of get used to not talking about it.” And since she avoided the subject around friends and classmates, why should she talk about it with strangers?

That changed at Gilda’s Club.

“Seeing that other people had gone through what I was going through and had made out OK really helped,” she said. “You begin to realize that life will go on, and not everything will be sad forever.”

Her father, Peter Clark, said even as cancer spread through his wife’s body, she still could find things to smile and laugh about when she compared experiences with other people who had cancer.

Rachel and Peter Clark continue to visit Gilda’s Club twice a month, helping with support groups. While Rachel has art-therapy sessions with other children and teens who have lost a parent, Peter Clark is down the hall, meeting with their surviving parents.

No one at Gilda’s Club denies cancer’s lethal potential. On a mural on the kitchen wall, members have written names of some of the people close to them who have died.

“I sometimes say I run with a dangerous crowd, because a lot of the people I’ve known are not around anymore,” said Liebermann, who helps with a variety of tasks at the club, including maintaining its computer network. He can feel his stamina slipping, but he gains a boost from weekly sessions in Nia, an exercise practice combining elements of tai chi, tae kwon do and modern dance.

Liebermann says Gilda’s Club has helped him shift his focus away from the question of how much longer he’ll live. “I’ve dealt with my own mortality,” he said. “If I die tomorrow, I would die a happy person.”

Club is a survivor

Anna Gottlieb, executive director of Gilda’s Club Seattle, said the club’s survival in a troubled economy may be its greatest accomplishment.

Over the club’s first decade, its annual budget rose from $400,000 to about $900,000, but dropped back to between $700,000 and $800,000 in the economic pinch of the past few years. Some programs were cut. Staffers’ hours were reduced.

Gilda’s Club has no membership fee, and all programs are free to members. Its revenue comes from fundraising events, especially the club’s annual fashion show, along with grants and individual donations.

Although new treatments have prolonged the lives of many cancer patients, cancer remains the second most common cause of death in the United States, exceeded only by heart disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

It estimates that this year, 1.6 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the country and 577,000 Americans will die of some form of the disease. In that time, Washington state will have more than 35,000 new cancer cases, and more than 12,000 cancer deaths.

The fact that Gilda’s Club is not tied directly to any of the region’s cancer-care institutions allows it a broader reach than any of those other organizations has individually, said Dr. Julie Gralow, a Seattle Cancer Care Alliance oncologist who serves on the club’s medical advisory board.

Gralow said ever since organizers were forming the club, “It was clear that they bring some pieces to the table that hadn’t been previously available,” such as ways of assisting young family members of cancer patients.

To broaden its reach outside Seattle, the club has hosted cancer-education talks in 38 high schools from Bellingham to Puyallup, speaking to more than 25,000 teens.

Useful information

Kristin Johnson of Seattle, an early club member, said those at Gilda’s Club offer each other not just emotional support but concrete information they might not get — or even think to ask for — from their doctors.

She remembers a woman at the club who was newly diagnosed and had pain she thought was an inevitable part of her cancer. But Johnson suggested medications to ask her doctor about. The woman was on a pain medication, and doing much better, the next time they met.

Club members share observations on the most basic aspects of living with cancer, such as the kinds of food easiest to tolerate after chemotherapy.

Johnson, 54, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1986. Eleven years later, tests showed it had spread to her lungs — Stage IV — and Johnson was told she may have 18 months to two years to live.

She moved from her Montana home to Seattle for treatment. “My deal with God was, ‘Please let me get my kids through high school.’ And now they’ve both graduated from college and my older son is a lawyer.”

Johnson has undergone 14 treatment regimens, and is waiting to begin a 15th. “Some work. Some don’t,” she said. She knows her disease is progressing; fluid builds up in her lungs much faster than it used to.

She helps out often at Gilda’s Club, cooking for events, staffing the reception desk, working on fashion-show plans.

For her, the club’s value isn’t just about services it provides for her, but how it puts her in a position to assist others. “You can’t feel bad,” she said, “if you’re helping somebody else.”

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222

or jbroom@seattletimes.com