By Morgan Thomas

At last year`s Women & Company luncheon for the American Cancer Society (ACS), emcee Lucie Arnaz asked any of the 130 women present, who were cancer survivors, to stand. About a quarter of the room stood. Then she asked anyone who had an immediate family member -- a mother, father, husband, sister, brother or child -- who had had cancer to join the women standing. Now more than half the room was on their feet. Then, finally she asked anyone who had been a caregiver to a close friend or a relative with cancer to stand. Now every woman in the room was standing.

Cancer affects families, not just individuals. Cancer affects communities. And so, it`s not surprising that volunteering for the American Cancer Society is also often a family affair. Fairfielder Marilyn Barbetta is a beautiful, blue-eyed Fairfield resident, who likes to sing with the Sweet Adelines, and now also enjoys driving cancer patients to their appointments through the Road to Recovery program.

When asked why she became a volunteer for the ACS, Marilyn explained, "My husband Vincent is very involved in the American Cancer Society. He`s been on the National Assembly and is former chairman of the board of the New England division. Then our son Joseph is active as well. He worked on the Relay for Life for eight years, three years as co-chairman, and he`s now is on the gala committee. Joseph is also a legislative ambassador for the Cancer Action Network. I thought I better get with the program!"

Her husband`s mother and aunt both died of breast cancer; his sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 40s. Vincent`s father died of lung cancer. The Barbettas are well aware of the impact a diagnosis of cancer makes on a family.

Marilyn decided to volunteer for the Road to Recovery. Every day thousands of cancer patients need a ride to treatment, but some may not have a way to get there. The Road to Recovery program provides transportation to and from treatment for people who have cancer and do not have a ride or are unable to drive themselves. Volunteer drivers donate their time and the use of their cars so that patients can receive the life-saving treatments they need. Those who use the program go through a screening process by the ACS and they must be ambulatory.

"People use this program as kind of a last resort," explained Marilyn. "because there`s no one else to take them. They`re very, very appreciative and always very kind."

The ACS office in Wilton will call Marilyn on a Thursday or Friday to check her availability the following week. The coordinator will tell her who needs a ride, where they are going, and the day and time. She then fits it into her calendar. Marilyn has driven people to Stratford but most of her calls are for appointments in Bridgeport and Fairfield.

"Just last week, I had an opportunity to drive someone to Norwalk, and I did take someone to New Haven once. I put no limit on that," she said.

Marilyn and volunteers like her drive people to regular doctor`s visits, chemotherapy or whatever sort of treatment they may be having. If it`s chemotherapy, she will usually drop the person off and they`ll call her on her cell phone when they`re ready to be picked up. Radiation treatments are usually shorter but are done everyday. For those, Marilyn takes the person she`s driving in and waits with them.

On the drive, she strikes up a conversation, asking about their family, if they have any children. "Once you establish a relationship with a person, then they feel free to talk about whatever they want, including their treatment. One guy just wanted to tell me dirty jokes and I let him. Let him laugh. I laughed too because, actually, they were funny."

Marilyn remembers the first time she picked up a young woman in Bridgeport. As she walked out, a man walked out with her. The young woman introduced herself and him to Marilyn, then she got into the car. The man just stood there. Marilyn asked him, "Would you like to come?" He nodded and got in the car. "He didn`t want to ask. He was so polite," she said.

"They become your friends, especially if you drive them a lot, for something like radiation. You may drive someone a couple of times a week. The first lady I drove I`m still friends with today. I`ll go to her house once or twice a year for lunch. The last time I was with her, she looked wonderful, very happy and very much at peace.

"I`m so inspired by the people who get in my car," she said. "They are so brave and courageous. There was one young woman in her late 30s with breast cancer. She was very religious and had a very positive attitude. She`s okay today. I told her, `You inspire me so much that if I`m ever in that position and get that diagnosis, I`m calling you.` Believe me, she is the first person I would call."