Cancer service has wide reach

— For the past five years, the help and support cancer patients and their families receive at Miles Perret Cancer Services in Lafayette has been delivered to outlying communities in a small RV — “Mobile Miles.”

The recreational vehicle is on the road three to four days a week and makes stops monthly at designated spots in Acadia, Evangeline, Iberia, Jefferson Davis, St. Landry and St. Mary parishes, and recently added University Medical Center in Lafayette as a stop.

“It has a small inventory of everything we have in our office: wigs, hats, scarves, mastectomy supplies, nutritional supplements, a small resource library,” said Lacey Shelton, Miles Perret Cancer Services community liaison. “Anything that someone can come to our office to receive, we have on the mobile unit.”

That includes hugs and a listening ear from Donna Fontenot, a cancer survivor and a service coordinator for Miles Perret Cancer Services who travels with the mobile unit into communities.

“I came here one day and wanted to find out what this was about. She made me feel so wonderful and confident,” Bridget James, of Opelousas, said of her first encounter with Fontenot.

The next time James heard from Fontenot was by phone when Fontenot invited her to a retreat. James beamed as she recalled the surprise of being driven to the retreat at a beautiful camp in Cypremort Point in a limousine.

The other clients she met there helped her see her diagnosis — and herself — differently, she said.

“It was a life-changing experience,” James said. “It gave me the will to go on, that there were more people like me. … Everybody told their story. Now, I’m able to talk about it.”

James was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2011 and in August 2011, had a complete mastectomy on her right side.

“I had a tough time,” James said. “I was so depressed.”

A month after her surgery, she saw a sign in her doctor’s office about the mobile unit and made a visit.

“We need this unit here,” she said of the need for the service in Opelousas.

The unit is packed with essentials. Fontenot opened one cabinet door and pulled out boxes of wigs, hats and scarves. Another cabinet held medical supplies, and a box named “Simply You” was filled with comforting and practical items for women who have had a mastectomy: a tiny, square, soft pillow to cushion their underarm; soft, sleeveless T-shirts; gauze; bandages; tissues and antiseptic gel. In an overhead cabinet, various sizes of breast prostheses and bras were stored.

Another larger storage area held nutritional supplements and “care kits” — gift bags filled with items such as soft-bristle toothbrushes, mints to soothe dry mouth, moisturizer to combat dry skin, hand sanitizer and all those “little things” people first diagnosed with cancer and undergoing treatment may need, Fontenot said.

All the services are free.

“Our only prerequisite is that they have a cancer diagnosis,” Fontenot said.

The RV helps bridge the distance to the services provided by Miles Perret in its Lafayette offices. The cancer resource and service center was founded in 2002 by the family of Miles Perret, who succumbed to a brain tumor in 1996 at the age of 8. Since its opening, the center has helped more than 8,000 families.

“Over 60 percent of our clients come from outside of Lafayette Parish,” Shelton said. “We feel that it’s very important to be able to get to everybody that may not be able to get to us.”

Joan Norse’s first encounter with Miles Perret Cancer Services was through its “Change for Miles” program — a change collection drive — in February 2012.

“I saw one of the jars at the hospital where I work,” said Norse, who is a nurse. A month earlier, her 13-year-old daughter, Miya, had recently been diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of cancerous bone tumor. The family drove to Lafayette to check out the center and received valuable information about the type of cancer Miya faced and resources to help her and her family.

The center has continued to support the family with gas cards to help with the expense of driving to Ochsner’s in New Orleans for her treatments and provided wigs and “chemo caps” after her treatment began.

“She had a field day there,” Norse said of Miya’s wig search. “It made that part a lot easier because a 13-year-old losing her hair is not a good thing.”

The center also organizes “Smiles for Miles,” activities for children with cancer and their siblings to have fun and be kids, Norse said. Miya has four other siblings and the activities help bring the family closer, she said.

“She’s been in the hospital 20 times and had 13 surgeries,” Norse said. “She can’t attend school, so these activities and outings help keep her spirits up.”

Her shoulder joint was removed and rebuilt using grafted hip bone and cadaver bone.

“We’re fighting to save her arm,” she said.

Miya has three to six more cycles of chemotherapy.

“She’s gaining weight. She’s never looked this good before. That gives me hope this has gone away,” Norse said. “We see the light at the end of the tunnel.”