By Susan Baird Kanaan
Imagine—or perhaps remember—life in Mendocino County without the Cancer Resource Centers. No help in understanding a cancer diagnosis and navigating the medical system, no decision support, no emotional and logistical help. This is the situation Sara O’Donnell faced in the early 1990s when she was first diagnosed with cancer. Then 40 and the mother of three, the rural Mendocino County resident says she felt “lost in the health care system” with nothing to guide her but a pamphlet. And a vision began to grow of making a difference for others facing cancer who were also feeling alone and searching for answers. “That fed the fire in my belly. We would put something together, somehow.”
Sara and a few others started networking and “verbalizing the dream” of creating an organization that would leave no one behind. Some hosted private events to raise money. “We started relationships of sharing,” she recounted. “I knew nothing—except that the need was real.”
The Cancer Resource Center of Mendocino County became a nonprofit organization in 1995 with a five-member board, some of whom still serve today, and a sparsely-furnished office on a Mendocino alley. A small donated seed fund and periodic raffles sustained it for the first five years. Gradually, CRC expanded its programs, human resources, and funding base. In 2002, a large grant enabled them to add an office with paid staff in Ukiah. At every stage, Sara served as a dynamic catalyst, finding and channeling support and resources from near and far.
CRC’s services for people and families living with cancer, all free, include a tailored list of questions for the oncologist and/or surgeon, accompaniment to medical appointments, a recording and summary, and a host of other practical and emotional supports. Sara recalled that doctors were unused to having anyone in medical appointments other than patients and family members, so introducing these critical CRC practices required a lot of relationship-building.
The organization had help in honing its services from a Bay Area researcher, Dr. Jeff Belkora, who was writing a Ph.D. thesis on decision support when a CRC board member connected him and Sara in 1998. The two collaborated on a state-funded, four-county project to train volunteers in decision support, followed by a decade-long research project on decision support, conducted by CRC and UCSF and funded by the California Breast Cancer Research Program.
Environmental advocacy and action grew naturally from Sara’s personal experience and drive to reduce the burden of cancer. Growing up, she had worked in the agricultural fields of San Joaquin Valley during summers and been exposed to what she called the “spray, spray, spray” ag practices of the day. She watched five close family members die of cancer and was affected, herself. In 2002, CRC joined other environmental health advocates in a successful campaign to get 10 county school districts to stop using pesticides on their fields.
Next came “Pure Mendocino,” CRC’s public education and fundraising event promoting organic farms and healthy living. With farm tours, produce and wine tasting, and a bounteous final dinner, it started in 2005 and became a high-profile annual affair that has widened awareness of CRC’s mission and raised a hefty portion of its annual budget. CRC also depends on individual donations and grants from the Community Foundation of Mendocino County and other foundations.
2007 brought Sara national recognition. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation named her as one of 10 recipients of that year’s Community Health Leader award for her leadership in providing accessible support services for cancer patients and their families and her environmental health advocacy. Along with a large monetary award to continue CRC’s work, she gained membership in a national network of honorees who meet every year to share learning and mutual support.
Sara began a careful transition to retirement in 2015, gathering advice from her wide network, and with a Community Enrichment grant from the Community Foundation to support a leadership transition, she retired as CRC’s Executive Director in December 2016. She was succeeded by Karen Oslund, whom she praised as “a brilliant choice” by the board. Asked what was important in the transition to new leadership after 22 years, she laughed and gave a simple answer: “I got out of the way of the process.”
The most rewarding thing about her work, she said, was “accompanying people to medical appointments and having them come out with less anxiety and more clarity. It’s vital that the community continue to support CRC,” she added, “because cancer isn’t going away.”
Asked to reflect on the Cancer Resource Centers’ impact in Mendocino County, Sara summed it up this way: “I want to think that people get better care because they’re active participants in choosing and understanding their treatment plans. And it’s just not as lonely. They have a one-stop-shop for information, support, and advocacy. And that makes for a healthier community.”