October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Yvonne Charles, CEO of the Charlotte Maxwell Clinic

‘Oakland’s Charlotte Maxwell Clinic takes care of our community in a heartfelt way.’

by Melbra Watts and Diana Zollicoffer

CMC has been a best-kept secret for women in the Bay Area dealing with cancer. However, the clinic doesn’t want to be a secret anymore.

The Charlotte Maxwell Clinic (CMC) has been providing free integrative cancer care to low-income Bay Area women since 1991. The clinic recently moved from its previous location to an historic bank building located on “Pill Hill” across from Sutter Hospital in Oakland.

The majority of CMC’s referrals come through the hospitals. Approximately 95 percent are from patient navigators, social workers, nurses and doctors, and the rest of the referrals are from family members or loved ones.

Clients may also self-refer saying, “I found out I had cancer and someone in my building said, ‘Hey, have you heard of Charlotte Maxwell Clinic?’” It’s word of mouth from people who have heard of us but might not know quite what we do.

“Having someone at Charlotte Maxwell who speaks my language is so comforting and helps me get the most out of all the wonderful treatments and services they offer to me at no cost.”

But wait, “What is integrative cancer care?”

This question highlights a major lack of awareness by women in the African-American, Latin, Asian and immigrant communities about the type of full comprehensive treatments against cancer that’s available. Now, if you say words like “massage therapy,” “acupuncture,” “nutrition and wellness,” “guided meditation,” “yoga” – again these same women may reject the idea by thinking, “I can’t afford that; I barely can pay my light bill!” Yet, the clinic has found that once introduced to such therapies, most of the clients – a term happily used versus patients – tend to continue throughout their entire medical protocols.

The Charlotte Maxwell Clinic’s CEO, Yvonne Charles, in an interview said: “We are more than a clinic. This is grounded in our mission that was established by our founders – the care they showed from the very beginning.”

The brief history is, the Charlotte Maxwell Clinic is named in honor of Charlotte Maxwell, who died of ovarian cancer in 1988. Having participated on many healthcare teams, Charlotte knew the value of team care. Facing cancer and unable to find a support group that met her needs, Charlotte put together her own health team, consisting of wonderful women practitioners who specialized in Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage, guided imagery, homeopathy and eventually hospice care. This team gave her loving support, visited her in the hospital and, when she could no longer travel, brought their services to her home.

“It’s nice to have a moment when I can feel like a human being and not a cancer patient.”

This compassionate group of women who cared for Charlotte knew there were many underserved women with cancer who could benefit from integrative cancer care but would not have access to such treatments. It is out of their experience, foresight and passionate belief in complementary integrative medicine that the Charlotte Maxwell Clinic was born. To this day, the Clinic provides integrative cancer care and health education to low-income women with cancer.

Walking into the clinic you immediately feel lighter. The space is welcoming and bright. Each treatment room is roomy yet cozy, clean and the walls are decorated with uplifting images. “It’s important to have a healing community where people understand that these tiny things are important. To have a bowl of apples for snacking when you come in, or to have the tea waiting sets a reassuring tone. The little ways that show that we care for our clients is critical to me and to the rest of the staff,” said Ms. Charles.

The board of directors are very hands on as well, something not often witnessed at other non-profits. “I’ve worked with well over 100 women and have seen several on multiple occasions,” says Melbra Watts, newly-elected CMC board president. Melbra has been a volunteer practitioner for nearly seven years. The clinic only has five paid staff members but over 150 active volunteer practitioners. The pool of volunteers and board members is diverse and very representative of the Bay Area.

CMC clients by race

CMC’s mission is to extend the quality of life of their clients. CMC clients appreciate that they can come in here for what some consider a “luxury” treatment, but in fact what many “woke” doctors know to be of benefit to traditional care.

Ideally, CMC will be referred to a woman who is newly diagnosed before she’s even begun conventional treatment because we want to prevent as many side effects as we possibly can; we all know prevention is much better than treatment. In fact, the connections and benefits of mind-body-spirit treatments along with traditional medical treatments (i.e. chemotherapy, pharmaceuticals, surgery etc.) recently have been studied by major medical researchers. In the Western medicine community hospitals among social workers and doctors, in particular, we have some really big fans, including a community of breast surgeons and oncologists who absolutely believe in what we do.

“Having that massage at CMC really helps me after getting radiation treatments,” a client testifies.

CMC is committed to ensuring that their clients’ survival and quality of life are not further jeopardized by inadequate attention to the side effects of the cancer or its treatment.

Low-income women are often diagnosed in later stages of cancer when the survival rates drop dramatically. CMC clients range from the homeless to the working poor, and their numbers are growing at a rate of 50 percent per year. If these women do not continue following their medically prescribed protocols, the mortality rate is far higher than their white, wealthier counterparts.

Average median low-income salary

Approximately 78 percent of CMC clients are Latina, African-American and Asian. Many clients speak little to no English and live below the federal poverty level.

CMC serves over 200 clients throughout the San Francisco Bay Area in our large, centrally located, public transportation accessible Oakland clinic. While the majority of our clients are from Alameda County, we also have clients from Contra Costa, Solano, San Francisco, Marin and Santa Clara counties.

The type and staging of their cancers likewise varies, with 85 percent of our clients having primary or metastatic breast cancer; 65 percent have advanced cancers.

CMC prides itself that more important than the statistical data these numbers represent is the women, we help. These women are our mothers, sisters, aunts, sister-friends, grandmothers – the women in our lives who shoulder a lot of responsibility alone.

Women who tend to be quiet in order to not burden us with their pain. Women who are raising a second or even a third generation of children on their own. And women who tend to neglect their own needs to help others.

Women of color are often called upon to be strong and tend to isolate or go through major life events alone. CMC practitioners and clients are supportive of each other.

A recent New York Times article highlights that the expanding gap between rich and poor is not only the widening gulf in incomes and wealth in America. It is that the rich lead longer lives, while cutting short the lives of those who are struggling, according to a government study.

The services of a clinic like the Charlotte Maxwell Center are greatly needed and it’s important that CMC remains active and becomes more visible in the community. Low income and women of color are already underserved, so the clinic is boosting its efforts for fundraising and building awareness.

Some issues the clinic is facing are the challenge of providing service in an area with a high cost of living, getting community leaders more involved, and expanding our outreach. Over the years the clinic has hosted talks, open-house, nutrition and cooking classes, music nights etc.

The women often come to CMC with a range of feelings from tension and anxiety to grief and loneliness but, after the personal attention received in their 50 minute one-on-one session, they report feeling lighter, more at peace, and with renewed hope and strength for continuing their healing journey. This is what it’s all about.

For more information, contact the Charlotte Maxwell Clinic, 411 30th St., Suite 508, Oakland, CA 94609, 510-601-7660, www.charlottemaxwell.org. Office hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Clinic hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. CMC is a California state licensed free clinic and non-profit providing integrative cancer care and safety net social services to low-income women.