Faces of Cancer: Daughter creates place for peace at cancer center

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, it is devastating to the entire family. And when cancer takes a life, finding an outlet for grief can be vital.

In January 2007, Rich Brooks was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma -- kidney cancer -- not long after he retired as maintenance manager for the Benton County Fairgrounds.

"He was the first person close to me to get cancer," said his daughter, Renee Dahlgren, 33, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Tri-Cities. "I was going to beat this thing with information."

She accompanied her father to all of his doctor appointments at Columbia Basin Hematology & Oncology in Kennewick and compiled volumes of information about his disease.

But information wasn't enough. On Christmas, she found out her father's cancer was terminal, and he passed away in March 2008.

Today, Dahlgren's emotions about losing her dad remain close to the surface, but a project she led has helped her find a measure of peace -- and assisted others facing the same battles.

After each of her father's appointments, Dahlgren would feel drained, so she often would sit in the parking lot at the Tri-Cities Cancer Center for 10 to 15 minutes to collect her emotions before she could go back to work.

"I thought it would be nice to have a place nearby to sit," she said.

A few months after her father died, she joined Leadership Tri-Cities Class XIV, and an idea began to gel. During a retreat in Wenatchee, the class visited Ohme Gardens, and the peace and stillness she experienced led to a breakthrough.

"It took a place of serenity like this for me to feel better and to start coming to grips with my feelings," she said.

Meanwhile, the cancer center was busy building a new wing, so Dahlgren proposed to her leadership class that it build a serenity garden at the same time. The idea took off, and planning began. The class approached businesses and individuals for money, and class members devoted their Saturdays during some of the coldest months of the year.

In May 2009, the garden was unveiled to the public.

"Everyone was amazing," she said. "They were there through the journey of my healing process. I wouldn't have come out of it so well if it weren't for this project and the people I worked with."

Today, Dahlgren volunteers as a member of the Tri-Cities Cancer Center Foundation board and the meetings at the cancer center conjure up the pain of losing her father. So she heads to the garden.

"It's very therapeutic for me and very emotional to be back there," she said.