In February of 2009 Susan Kapadia received the news that most of us hope we’ll never hear: she had cancer. The news did what one might expect, it shocked, frightened, and overwhelmed both her and her family. Out of the blue they faced navigating a bewildering maze of medical information and services in addition to grappling with the idea that she had a serious and life-threatening disease. Her story ended happily and she has been cancer free for nine years now, but it was her own experience that led her to become a passionate advocate for cancer patients in our valley.

Her illness was followed by three years working at the Breast Cancer Resource Center in Santa Barbara, plus obtaining a Certificate in Patient Advocacy. By 2012, friends and friends of friends in Ojai were regularly sending people diagnosed with cancer to Susan to get advice, support, and information. At a dinner party one night she sat next to a guest who heard her talk about her own experience and how she was helping people in the valley as they faced their daunting diagnoses. The guest was so struck by how large the need for cancer support was that she offered Susan a space in a building she owned in town free of charge!

Thus began OjaiCARES. Susan began a support group for cancer patients and when the space grew too small, she moved to Little House where she could hold a larger groups. It soon became clear that the need in Ojai was larger than Little House could handle. So, in 2014, she rented a space on the east end of town on Ojai Ave and set up spaces for all the services that OjaiCARES provides. The organization supplies services such as patient navigation, advocacy, weekly support groups, a caregiver support program, oncology massage and skincare, Reiki, guided imagery, therapeutic yoga, a lending library, and a boutique for hats, wigs, etc. All of these services are free.

The Ojai Women’s Fund’s grant of $10,000 allowed OjaiCARES to provide 200 additional hours of patient navigation to their clients. These extra hours make a world of difference to the people who receive them. We’re all familiar with the daunting task of remembering what a doctor tells us in an annual physical – imagine entering the world of a cancer diagnosis and hearing an entire new vocabulary, learning about treatment options, and managing the stress of your loved ones and your own fear and anxiety. A good navigator provides support and communication between family, medical teams, community, and the patient. This guidance makes a formidably difficult experience more manageable.

At its most recent fund raiser, held at Topa Topa Winery, Susan spoke of the increased need for funding for the important services provided. All services are free and donations and grants are the only source of income. But, in spite of the perpetual struggle to finance this worthwhile endeavor, Susan and her team forge on. The keynote speaker at the fundraiser was a woman who spoke of her own cancer diagnosis and her struggle to come to terms with it. Her remarks reflected just what a huge difference OjaiCARES had made for her and her family.

Let’s hope that OjaiCARES continues to thrive as they provide these wonderful and necessary services to the people of the Ojai Valley. If you are interested in finding out more about what the organization is up to or if you wish to make a donation, check out their website: ojaicares.org.