When you first walk in, the Loran Smith Center feels more like grandma’s house than a cancer support facility.
The waiting area — or “family sun room” as it’s called — is spotted with oversized, overstuffed couches while the calming sound of a water fountain saturates the room. Behind the building, which is designed to look and feel like a one-story abode, is its “healing garden,” a space filled with flowers, a rocky creek, a meditation garden and a nature labyrinth for mentally distressed patients to lose themselves in.
It’s a calming area perfectly designed for those facing the most difficult times of their lives — battling cancer or watching a loved one struggle with its ruthlessness. It’s a time Lauren Richards, an oncology social worker at the Loran Smith Center, can attest to.
“I had family members affected by cancer during formative years of my life,” Richards said. “I saw how cancer had impacted my family.”
At the age of 7, Richards’ grandfather was diagnosed with leukemia. She remembers the sadness she felt as she observed her “big, robust” grandfather turn daunt, pale and physically fade away during her many trips to Emory University Hospital. Above all, she remembers the grief her family expressed as they watched leukemia take her grandfather’s life in just over a year after diagnosis.
In her teenage years, Richards’ uncle was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Her uncle was very close to her father as they often played golf together. After the cancer had taken her uncle’s life in his mid-40s, Richards best remembers how her upset mother cried, mentioning how unfair it all was.
Other members of Richards’ family have also battled cancer, some losing the fight, and others including her father, survived.
Now 39 years old, Richards has experienced how cancer can spread a negative emotional ripple through a family. So, she’s devoted her career to aiding people through that pain at the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support.
“When [cancer patients] are living their day-to-day life and their family members can’t really understand what they’re going through, they’re not getting support from people at work,” Richards said, “this is a place where they can come and be understood and accepted.”
Growing up, Richards was always the person that friends would bring their issues to in an effort to sort out their problems. After graduating with a master’s degree in social work from the University of Georgia in 2001, Richards started to work for the Loran Smith Center. Now with 16 years of oncology social work experience at the center, Richards has helped thousands of patients and their loved ones — some as young as 4 years old — get through their emotional fight with cancer.
At the Loran Smith Center, Richards offers multiple services to clients — one-on-one counseling, support groups, yoga and tai chi relaxation sessions and therapeutic art and writing courses. Richards said she helps many patients by focusing their efforts on things in their life that they are able to manage, so patients feel more in control of their lives. But for some clients, like terminal cancer patients, Richards said she tries to help simply by making the patient’s reality more practical and showing them they’re not powerless in their situation.
“You can live and you can thrive even in very difficult times,” Richards said. “It’s believing that you can and then it’s mobilizing, it’s reaching out, it’s utilizing the resources that are there for you so that you can do that.”
When Richards was grieving about her grandfather and uncle’s cancer, there wasn’t an outside support system like Loran Smith Center to help her. That’s why Richards said the number one thing she provides each client is the feeling of knowing someone is there to care for them.
“Even when people are very ill, they’re almost always grateful that somebody cares about what’s going on with them,” Richards said.
By the end of every visit, everyone walks out of her office saying at least one positive thing they like about themselves. Richards said working her job has taught her to appreciate life more. She said it’s most rewarding to know she can join someone’s journey and change their outlook on life.
“[Knowing] they can walk away and say ‘I feel so much better,’” Richards said, “to be able to be a witness to that, to be a part of that for someone, it’s such a blessing.”
The Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support is a branch of the Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center that is funded entirely through donations to the Piedmont Athens Regional Foundation. Fundraisers such as the In Their Shoes Walk and 50 Shades of Pink Affair, which will be held on Oct. 22, raise money to support the center.