List for Life

By Gabriella West

Pacific Sun
Rising Suns, May 2 – 8, 2008
Nancy DSC_0099

Photograph by Robert Vente

Nancy Novack almost didn’t make it this far. The 64-year-old psychologist was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer four years ago after suffering symptoms that she thought indicated an appendicitis attack:  stomach pain and bloating at the waistline. There is no stage 5.

At Stanford Medical Center, her oncologist told her, “It’s going to be a rough journey… hold on tight.” Instantly connecting with the doctor’s honesty and cheered by the fact that he offered her his home number for support, Novack began 21 intense courses of chemotherapy and is currently cancer-free, a remarkable feat.

She characteristically makes light of her difficult journey without being flippant about it. “I never believed I was that sick,” she says thoughtfully about her attitude toward the disease. Instead of fighting the cancer, Novack’s stance was more one of learning to live with it.

Part of her healing journey has been helping others. She launched a nonprofit, Nancy’s List, a year ago, and debuted her website, www.nancyslist.org, just two-and-a-half months ago. According to Novack’s own unofficial mission statement, the purpose of Nancy’s List is “to address the economic, physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and social challenges that our many neighbors face every day.” Novack says of the site’s uplifting images and pale lavender design, that she didn’t want it to look like Craigslist; she has created something peaceful, elegant and inspiring for panicked people to turn to for support and information.

Alarmingly, there are 1,400 new cases of cancer diagnosed every year in the County, out of a population of roughly 275,000 residents. While there has been less cancer mortality in the last few years, Novack reports that survivors are living with a poor quality of life, often under- or unemployed, strapped for cash and lacking social resources. Typically, even fully insured people with cancer incur $35,000 in out-of-pocket costs over each year of their illness. Her site offers cancer patients a multitude of assistance, both economic and social in nature. On the Nancy’s List bulletin boards, a woman with bone cancer on a limited income can ask for a car donation — all requests go through Nancy before being posted online — while other patients who are having trouble accessing affordable drugs can turn to the site’s comprehensive Resources section to locate organizations like the Patient Advocate Foundation in Newport News, Virginia. It is a resource Nancy herself didn’t know about when she was struggling with the aftereffects of chemo and “had to shoot myself up with [expensive, out-of-pocket] drugs at home,” she says bluntly.

The impulse to do this community outreach stemmed from Novack’s experience of being in the hospital waiting room for courses of chemotherapy. Novack says she was always surrounded by friends, dressed up, wearing a different long, curly wig each time. She tried to make a party out of her treatment. But it haunted her, she says, to see the people going through it alone, folks who would wistfully look at her group of caregivers and want to be included, who looked scared but had no one to comfort them. Novack counsels many people with cancer now and sees this as part of her work; she says that people typically call her when they first get diagnosed and want to know what to do with themselves. “They’re frantic,” Novack says. Her vision for the site is that it will involve more and more of the community until the notion that “we’re in this together” becomes widespread.

Novack came of age in the 1960s, and was divorced and “out of the straightest marriage on the whole planet” by 1972. Raising her young son alone in San Francisco, she gathered around herself a group of supportive friends, many of them gay men. She vividly remembers the years of the AIDS epidemic when, despite the trauma and loss and caring for dying friends, no one seemed separate and apart. Novack wistfully recalls 1970s San Francisco as a joyous time, and even the terrible Moscone/Milk shootings in 1978 as a unifying experience. “We were all there in front of City Hall with the lights all around us, holding hands in a circle, singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’” While she had to leave San Francisco for Marin during the dot-com boom, she was obviously liberated by the city and her experiences there.

And so, toughened by the crucible of AIDS and her solidarity with the gay community during those frightening years, Novack has faced her own cancer with a fearless spirit and a determination to reach out. “I used to give parties during that period,” she says with a laugh of her time after diagnosis. She believes that the community’s social support is critical for the well-being of the person with cancer, just as it has been for her. “In my mind, it has really changed my life in very, very amazing, positive ways,” she reflects on her journey with the disease. “People who are in the cancer world are amazing little angels. My heart has been opened.”