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Gilda's Club Chicago Celebrates 15 Years of Cancer Support

RIVER NORTH — When Kendall Malloy was sent to the specialist who would diagnose her with leukemia, she was given two pieces of advice.

Before the diagnosis, the hematologist at Northwestern told her to "stop by the liquor store and pick up some liquor" while en route to his office.

After he broke the news that her low blood cell count meant cancer, he gave her another recommendation: Go seek support at Gilda's Club. Shortly after, Malloy went through the red door at 537 N. Wells St., and realized it was "the first place I could be myself" since her diagnosis.

Malloy, 33, now visits Gilda's Club at least three times a week. She takes yoga classes she "never ever would have considered taking four years ago," attends nutrition seminars that have helped her discover a love of vegetables — which she'd "always, always hated" — and has made friends who "don't treat you like a glass doll."

"At Gilda's Club, I can be myself," she said. "I don't have to worry. If I'm not feeling well, I can just say 'I'm really not feeling well today,' and people won't object because they have bad days, too. So it's safe. It's a safety net for me."

CEO LauraJane Hyde says stories like Malloy's are common. Members aren't only cancer patients: anyone touched by the disease is welcome to freely use the club's classes and support networks after a qualifying intake session where they describe their connection to the illness that hits more than a million Americans annually.

"It saved my sanity. It's helped me get through two cancers, and it's still helping," said Martha Jacobs, 63, a Roscoe Village resident. "I think if I didn't have this, I might not have come through the whole cancer thing as well."

On Valentine's Day, Gilda's Club Chicago, named for Second City alum Gilda Radner and founded by her husband Gene Wilder after her death from ovarian cancer, will celebrate 15 years of service.

While undergoing treatment, Radner found significant relief from nonmedical therapies such as yoga and meditation and wanted to encourage others touched by cancer to seek similar means of emotional treatment, said April Valdez, Gilda's Club Chicago's outreach and volunteer coordinator.

So the national network of clubs founded in memory of the comedienne focused on services that compliment the stresses of diagnosis, treatment and deaths for cancer patients, their families and their friends.

The agency offers not just support groups but also supplemental seminars on healthy eating and navigating healthcare billing, weekly classes in yoga and tai chi, and events where people can take their minds off cancer, including a party planned for Friday to celebrate the club's anniversary.

The club also will launch a new website that day that will make it easier for members to connect with services and activities, Valdez said.

In November, the Gilda's Club Madison announced it was dropping Radner's name because “When you hear 'Gilda’s Club,' if you don’t know what that means, you may not come to us,” the executive director said.

But at Chicago's club, reminders of Radner are everywhere.

A mural in the lobby depicts her most iconic "Saturday Night Live" characters. The basement kids' area is called "Noogieland" — a nod to one of her characters, Lisa Loopner, who often exchanged knuckle-rubs with Bill Murray — and features an ocean-themed mural where the actress makes a cameo as a mermaid.

Second City plays a key role in the club's operations. Andrew Alexander, Second City's CEO and executive producer who knew Radner personally, was involved in the Chicago club's founding and has kept the improv company connected.

Second City raises funds and often dispatches improv groups for entertainment and therapeutic purposes at the club.

"Our improv techniques can be very helpful to Gilda's Club" like role-playing stressful situations or joking about serious issues, Alexander said. "It also brings a certain looseness to a group ... Obviously, we believe in their mission, and for us, there's a personal connection because Gilda had connections to Second City."

Radner worked at Second City in Toronto but through the River North club that bears her name, her legacy lives on in Chicago.

"Gilda’s Club Chicago will remain Gilda’s Club Chicago in honor of the courageous way Gilda Radner lived, and all our members live, with cancer," Hyde wrote in an announcement on Gilda's Club Chicago's website explaining why the Chicago club wouldn't change its name.