Dr. Donald Richey helps cancer patients with free program
Of the myriad side effects that come from cancer treatment, among the most overlooked are the ones closest to the surface. Oncologists are so concerned with the internal impacts of radiation and chemotherapy that they don’t always focus on the external: skin, hair and nails.
That’s where dermatologists come in—particularly the dermatologists associated with the no-cost, all-volunteer-staffed Brighter Days community-service program. Launched in Chico seven years ago by Dr. Donald Richey, Brighter Days now supports patients in seven cities and three states. (It’s soon to be eight, when Sacramento comes on board.)
Brighter Days brings together a dermatologist and cancer patients for one session each month. The physician shares tips for addressing side effects of treatments, then turns the gathering over to the participants for their own sharing. Attendees leave with a free basket of products to help ease their symptoms.
Most patients come only once, though occasionally someone returns.
The name Brighter Days, Richey concedes, “is kind of an oxymoron, because when you are having cancer, not knowing whether you are going to live or die, and having serious side effects, it’s not that bright.”
However, considering his goal is to alleviate suffering, the name seems appropriate.
“It’s very, very rewarding,” Richey said. “It gets emotional sometimes. Holy cow—some of those stories will just break your heart!
“In one of my opening statements, I ask people if they remember when Kennedy was shot or how many remember 9/11; then I’ll ask, ‘How many of you remember the day you walked into the doctor and he said you have cancer?’ That’s a day you’ll never forget. That’s a life-changing experience.
“These people are hungry for information. When they come in, they’re scared, they’re sad. When they leave, they have a lot of information and they’ve talked to each other, and there’s a real power in that.”
Brighter Days sessions in Butte County take place the first Wednesday of the month. At 11 a.m., Richey visits the Enloe Regional Cancer Center in Chico; at 1 p.m., he visits the Feather River Hospital Oncology Center in Paradise.
In the sessions, Richey employs a format he calls Talk, Touch and Tell.
Talk is fairly self-explanatory—the dermatologist makes a 20- to 30-minute instructional speech about the effects of cancer treatment and basic remedies to combat dry skin, lesions and other conditions.
Next comes Touch: “I go around to each person and take them by the hand to check their skin out,” Richey said. “It’s more the power of the touch [that makes an impact]—I’ve had patients say, ‘Thank you, Dr. Richey, nobody has touched me in a year.’”
Finally, there’s Tell—patients relaying their stories and wisdom. “It kind of becomes group therapy,” Richey said. “Frankly, they share with each other how they deal with things.”
One particular session still resonates with Richey. Eleven of the 12 chairs were filled through Talk and Touch; the final woman arrived in time only for Tell. She settled into her seat just as the woman next to her was discussing intimate details of her gynecological cancer.
“She had multiple surgeries, multiple problems—very rare,” Richey recalled. “And the lady sitting next to her had just come from the gynecologist with the same, identical rare diagnosis. And so she was sitting next to the very lady who could help her, comfort her, give her advice. Now that’s an amazing coincidence.”
Richey came up with the idea for Brighter Days around eight years ago. As he explained in a recent phone interview, “My daughter-in-law’s mother, Chris, a retired teacher in Portland, Ore.—a tall, dignified woman—had undergone 15 years of chemo, surgery and radiation for multiple cancers. I got to know her basically in the last year of her life.
“I could see she had all these continuous problems with her skin, hair and nails. That was really in the realm of dermatology. And so I said, ‘Chris, if I could have made your life more comfortable, could have made you feel a little better about your appearance, made life a little more positive for you, would that have been worthwhile?’
“She said yes, and from there I developed this program.”
He began speaking about Brighter Days at dermatological conferences, and colleagues rallied to the cause. Affiliated programs sprang up in Santa Rosa, Burlin-game and Newport Beach, as well as Portsmouth, N.H., and Atlanta, Ga.
The program depends on the generosity of physicians as well as pharmaceutical companies. Richey has a requirement for each. The dermatologist must conduct the sessions at a cancer center, not at his or her office, and the suppliers must provide full-size containers of products, not sample sizes.
Only the maker of a hair-growth product balked at Richey’s demand for full sizes. Thus, he goes to Costco and buys $500 of minoxidil (which promotes hair growth) at a time.
“I’ll roll up to the checkout line,” he said, “and here I am with a full head of hair and a basket full of Rogaine, and guys will ask, ‘Buddy, does that stuff work that well?!’
“‘Yeah, I buy it by the cartload!”
Joking aside, Richey says he gets great satisfaction from his part in Brighter Days.
“I could give you a stack of thank-you notes that are just amazing. I guess that’s what keeps me going, the thank-you notes,” Richey said. “Some people, this really touched their heart, and I’m thrilled to be a part of that.”