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Harriet Benjamin, founder of cancer center, dies at 85

LOS ANGELES - Harriet Benjamin, whose breast cancer battle inspired the Wellness Community, an innovative support network for cancer patients and their families, died April 7 at her home in Marina del Rey, west of Los Angeles. She was 85.

Benjamin was cancer-free for more than 35 years after her initial diagnosis in 1972. Her death came five months after she was found to have lung cancer, said her daughter Ann.

The Wellness Community was founded in 1982 by Benjamin's husband, Harold, who gave up a thriving Beverly Hills law practice to open a center in Santa Monica that he hoped would fill a void in the cancer treatment world by focusing on the social and emotional health of cancer patients. Within two years, the center, seeded with $250,000 from the Benjamins, was offering 25 support groups a week at no cost to the patients or their family members.

After merging recently with Gilda's Club, a similar organization named for the late "Saturday Night Live" comedian Gilda Radner after her death from ovarian cancer, the Wellness Community now operates under the banner of the Cancer Support Community, which last year served more than 350,000 people in the United States and three other countries. It has been hailed as a model of psychosocial aid that can help enhance the life of cancer patients.

Benjamin, who led orientation meetings for newcomers to the West Los Angeles Wellness Community and helped train others to lead them, was "the heart and soul of our organization," said Cancer Support Community president Kim Thiboldeaux. "She did not want people to face cancer alone."

Her attitude was molded by the experience she had living with her husband, two children and mother in Synanon, the controversial drug rehabilitation community in Santa Monica founded by Charles Dederich, who coined the phrase "Today is the first day of the rest of your life."

Benjamin, who was born in Hammonton, N.J., on June 2, 1924, met her husband when both were students at Penn State University, where she earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in business and social economics. They were married in 1947. She worked as an agricultural researcher at Cornell University while her husband attended its law school, but stopped working when daughter Ann was born in 1949. A second daughter, Lauren, was born in 1952.

She moved with her family to Los Angeles in 1964 and later worked as a travel agent. For several years before and after her bout with breast cancer, she was known for driving in West Los Angeles on a cherry-red Honda motorcycle.

Every Friday for the last five years she led meetings for new cancer patients at the Westside Wellness Community. She helped others open up about the challenges they were facing by talking about her own experiences and the importance of not giving in to the isolating nature of the disease.

Harold Benjamin died in 2004. In addition to her daughters, she leaves a grandson and two great-grandchildren.

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