Wellness Community creator dies at 80

LOS ANGELES – Harold Benjamin, who gave up a successful law practice after his wife was treated for breast cancer to found the Wellness Community, a groundbreaking network of support centers for cancer patients and their families, died Thursday at his home in Marina del Rey, Calif., of complications from pulmonary fibrosis. He was 80.

Benjamin created the first Wellness Community – a home-like center that offered emotional support groups, educational and relaxation workshops, even joke-fests for people with cancer – in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1982. His concept – to turn cancer “victims” into their own advocates, reduce despair and enhance the possibility of recovery – filled a void in the treatment world and became a model emulated around the world.

The Wellness Community now has 22 centers in the United States and two abroad, in Tokyo and Tel Aviv, Israel, all staffed by licensed professionals whose services are provided free. It has trained scores of therapists and others who have opened similar programs across the country, such as Gilda’s Club, named for the late “Saturday Night Live” comedian Gilda Radner, who wrote glowingly of her own experiences at the Wellness Community before losing her struggle with ovarian cancer in 1989.

“The Wellness Community is one of the truly great models of psychosocial support for cancer patients that emerged over the last quarter century,” said Michael Lerner, president and founder of Commonweal, a nonprofit institute in Bolinas that runs a nationally recognized retreat for cancer patients.

“What Harold did,” Lerner noted, “was organize a replicable national model. … Nobody, to my knowledge, has done such a comprehensive job for all cancer patients. That was his signal contribution to the field.”

When Benjamin launched the Wellness Community, it was viewed with some skepticism because there was no mainstream consensus that cancer patients needed or would benefit from the types of programs he envisioned. Most of the research showing that psychosocial support can help prolong the life of cancer patients came later, said Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, who knew Benjamin for many years.

“One of the worst things that can happen to you if you have cancer is to be isolated from your fellow human beings,” Whybrow said. “When Harold started this, if someone said they had cancer, everyone ran away from them. This was something Harold took exception to, and he ran in the other direction,” to embrace those with cancer and help them mobilize their inner resources to work effectively with doctors against the disease.

Benjamin was born in Philadelphia on April 19, 1924, the youngest of three children. After serving in the Army as a radarman during World War II, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Penn State in 1947. He married a fellow Penn State student, Harriet Miller, who supported him through law school at Cornell.

In the 1960s, he was involved at an administrative level with Synanon, the controversial drug rehabilitation program in Santa Monica founded by Charles Dederich. His work there as a “straight” or non-drug user convinced him of the benefits of community-based therapy programs.

In 1972, his wife was diagnosed with cancer and underwent a bilateral mastectomy. Harriet Benjamin was determined, she wrote later, to “fight for my recovery and not be passive in the face of adversity.” She educated herself so she could “be partners with my medical team” and overcome the disease.

After his wife’s recovery, Benjamin decided that “for some reason, it was very important to me that as many people as possible recover from cancer to the greatest extent possible, and I thought I could help,” he wrote in his 1995 book, “The Wellness Community Guide to Fighting for Recovery From Cancer.” “And although I can’t explain why, I was anxious to devote all my efforts to that undertaking.”

The Wellness Community now serves 30,000 people a year at its facilities. Along with AIDS and gene splicing, it was heralded in an exhibit at Disney’s Epcot Center as one of three transforming events in the health field in the latter part of the 20th century.

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