Note: This article was written as a project of the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. It is one of two articles taking a look at Korean-Americans with cancer in the California Bay Area. Read the other article here. The two articles were later merged together and published as one piece on New America Media.
On the third Tuesday of every month, the Hometown Buffet on El Camino Real in Santa Clara is swarmed by Korean Americans piling into the banquet room. As they fill their plates and catch up with friends, they seem like any other group of middle-aged folks looking forward to lunch. You wouldn’t guess that what brings this chatty bunch together is cancer.
These meetings are held by the Korean Cancer Patients & Family Support Group. There are currently about 60 cancer patients and 50 volunteers.
“Mostly patients come to the lunch meetings, not volunteers,” said Sooil Joo, the chairman of the group. “These meetings look like people are just eating, and it is easy to dismiss. Cancer patients can become lonely and depressed, so then they want to die soon. But here there are lots of cancer patients like them, and when they get together they encourage each other and lift each other up.”
The support group started in 2003 in a spare room in San Jose’s Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, but is open to anyone.
Soongsil Son, a breast cancer survivor, has come full circle in the group.
“Actually I knew this group when they started — they were meeting in my church. I knew some group started in 2003, but in 2005, a member asked me to come and join them. I only went for events, four times a year, something like that. After I got cancer in 2006, I got fully involved.”
Cancer is the leading cause of death for Korean Americans according to the Asian American Network for Cancer Awareness Research and Training (AANCART). Though they are one of the fastest growing Asian sub-populations, there are few programs accommodating the special needs of the Korean American cancer population here in the California Bay Area.
Due to certain cultural health attitudes and their recent immigration history, it can be difficult for Korean Americans to talk about cancer, take preventative action and reach out for support in the community.
“Lots of people hiding when they have cancer,” Son said. “At first I hiding, even to my family. I was going to finish the [chemotherapy] treatment by my own way without telling the family. One month later, I told my children.”
Son tries to help those who, like her, have difficulty discussing their illness.
“I visit the new patients, get their information and see what they need. I match them up with people in same groups and can help each other,” Son said. “When I go to the doctor, I always ask questions. I get as much information as I can. I get the pamphlets and bring everything back to share. We talk and support and caring for each other. We share information about cancer treatment side effects and health managing tips. It looks like we only eat, but we share and meet together. Talking helps a lot.”
The church in which this group started also provides home-cooked food to cancer patients and others in need.
On Thursdays, members of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church get together to cook and package hundreds of meals for people who cannot cook for themselves anymore.
Seh Chang Lee, an oral cancer survivor who had difficulty eating before his illness was diagnosed, gets meal deliveries weekly.
“The food is good,” Lee said in Korean. “I try to eat everything. They tell you not to eat this and to be careful of salt, but you cannot eat enough like that. I eat everything I can.”
Kathy Kim, a co-founder of this volunteer effort, is a longtime member of the church and says they help cook for more than 100 people every week, of which more than half are cancer patients.
Kim and her fellow church member Sung Hong started the organization in 2005. Kim was already cooking on Wednesdays to make lunch after the afternoon adult worship.
“I noticed some people couldn’t come down to the meeting because they are sick and ill or have some kind of cancer,” she said. “I think that I feel so sorry for them and I wanted to help that kind of person. Healthy person, they can drive to church and we can eat together, but for the not healthy ones it is hard to come out to church and enjoy it. I wanted to visit them and make them food, make them healthier and encourage them.”
Kim, Hong and roughly 40 volunteers work to send out two days’ worth
of food at a time. Usually there are Korean vegetable and meat dishes such as kong namul (bean sprouts) and a cucumber and beef dish along with kimchi and soup. Though the organization receives donations, often the volunteers spend their own money for ingredients and gas, as well as their time.
Several volunteers do the grocery shopping, while others begin cooking on Wednesdays to make the soup that accompanies all the meals. The rest of the volunteers show up at the church around 9 a.m. on Thursdays and cook until noon, which is when they package up the food and deliver it to the patients.
“Sometimes they really appreciate and cry to see homemade food. One woman, she remembered her mom used to make this kind of food so she crying and our people know we have a good reason to make the food.”
“We don’t make prescription food,” Kim said, explaining that following doctors’ orders precisely usually led to bland meals. “We make good food with some salt. We make good healthy food with vegetables in season and take out all the fat from our soups.”
The Korean Cancer Patients & Family Support Group also holds events like exercise classes and seminars on insurance or how to apply for Medical or Medicare. It helps arrange funeral services cheaply and gives what money it can to cancer patients with financial difficulties. The rest of the time, the volunteers pick up loose odds and ends.
Joo gave a recent example of some of the other things the organization’s volunteers do.
“There was a [Korean] woman living in San Mateo who was married to a white guy. She had cancer, which limited her ability to move in life. She really wanted Korean food so she contacted me,” he said. “Since she couldn’t make it, we delivered food and brought her out to sit together and eat.”
Members also visit patients in hospitals or go to act as translators. The volunteers that are sorely lacking, says Joo, are the fundraising volunteers.
“If we had the money, we would do many things,” Joo said. “I would like to give more money to families with financial difficulty. I want famous doctors to come and do seminars, but this costs money. I want to start looking into hospice services. … But if I had the money, I wish we could get our own office some day.”