|By Katelyn Gendron|
Reminder Assistant Editor
WESTFIELD In 1994 Gaetana Aliotta was diagnosed with breast cancer.
It was then, Aliotta said, she made a bargain with God. "If you let me live I'll do whatever you want," she recalled saying to God, adding that she promised to create a free establishment dedicated to those with cancer and their families.
Established in 1997, the Cancer House of Hope located at 86 Court St., with a satellite location at 946 Plumtree Rd. in Springfield is the physical realization of Aliotta's dream and the fulfillment of her promise to God.
Approximately 1,300 people have improved their physical and mental well-being through the various free services at the house, including yoga, relaxation groups, reiki therapy and numerous support groups for cancer patients and their families.
As a tribute to Aliotta's extraordinary efforts to establish and maintain the Cancer House of Hope, she will be receiving the National Association of Social Workers Massachusetts Chapter's 2008 award for the "Greatest Contribution to Social Work Practice" at their annual reception in Auburndale, Mass., on March 11.
Kathleen Damon, member of the Cancer House of Hope board of trustees and member of the NASW Massachusetts Chapter, said she nominated Aliotta for the award because "she is someone who took the experience of having cancer, which to any of us would be overwhelming, and she took that experience and turned it into something that would benefit people.
"She created a system of support in a homelike setting [the family home in Westfield was donated by Noble Hospital] so they [cancer patients, survivors and family members] could get the support they need while going through the illness," Damon said. "That's a remarkable achievement. I see it as a remarkable privilege and experience to know her and what she can accomplish in the community."
In an interview with Reminder Publications, Aliotta said she felt honored and humbled to be receiving this award from her colleagues.
"I'm amazed," she said. "It's overwhelming because I did this [founded the Cancer House of Hope] out of passion because of what I went through. I had cancer two times in 1994 and 1998. I had surgeries and chemotherapy and I lost my hair. I know what it feels like to be unattractive. I feel so lucky that I'm alive. I get my reward from seeing people get help at the house."
Aliotta said her experiences surviving cancer she is currently in remission allowed her a deeper understanding of the vital importance of support groups and the need for a facility where patients can go to be cared for and understood.
She explained that while battling cancer she searched for support groups and other avenues of care that took place regularly.
"I feel that people need to have dignity going through their treatment," Aliotta said. "You feel so fearful and depressed that you need to have more support than just one night a week at a hospital."
Aliotta explained that while she feels honored to be receiving this award from the NASW Massachusetts Chapter she couldn't have established the house without the initial 12-member development committee and numerous donations from the community.
"When I go to the house I feel like I'm among heroes because I see so many beautiful people battling their cancer with so much heroism and courage and it lifts me up. I'm honored to be around people with cancer," she said.
Cheryl Gorski, executive director of the Cancer House of Hope, said she could think of no other person who deserved the award more than Aliotta. "She's been a huge help to me and an invaluable resource personally and professionally. Working with her, she's always quick to remind us why we're here in the first place to help people. We just want people, no matter what their diagnosis, to feel comfortable and it's just what the name says it is, a place of hope."
For more information about the Cancer House of Hope go to www.cancerhouseofhope.org.