PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — An event is being held tonight in Philadelphia to help patients and raise awareness about the importance of confronting all the complicated emotions of having cancer. The Cancer Support Community, an agency that helps thousands of cancer patients and their families with a variety of free programs, is hosting “Unmasking Cancer.”

Tammy Brenner showed up at the Cancer Support Community four years ago.

“This community gave me my life back,” Brenner said.

Brenner had surgery and radiation after being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 53.

“I could not believe it,” she said. “I cried, then I pulled up my big girl panties and went on my way.”

At the Cancer Support Community, Brenner found a variety of services, but most important to her were the new friendships.

“We can talk about anything. I don’t have to pretend, they don’t have to pretend to me,” she said. “We can cry to each other, we can laugh to each other.”

They sometimes gather at Ridgeland Mansion in Fairmount Park, which is one of the group’s seven locations.

“It’s very much a home-like environment,” Cancer Support Community CEO Kelly Harris said. “People feel at ease the minute they walk through the front door.”

Harris is a former cancer patient herself.

“Our program includes support groups, individual concealing, education, mind/body programs and an expansive program for kids and teens,” Harris explained. “For families going through cancer, it’s not just about great medical care, it’s also about getting support for stress, anxiety, fear that surrounds living with a cancer diagnosis.”

They’re working on masks in art because the theme of the CSC gala this year will be unmasking cancer.

“I think I’ve been wearing a mask for a very long time,” Brenner said.

Masks are a metaphor for hiding, trying to cover up being sick and fearful, but doctors say embracing feelings is an important part of living through cancer.

“Cancer is poison, holding it in is poison, stress is poison. When you’re among people that you love, that’s who you are, you can let it go. You can just be who you are and not put a show or put your make on for anybody else,” Brenner said.

Brenner, who is now enjoying being a grandmother, will be honored at the gala tonight.

The Cancer Support Community has more than 150 free programs each month at their different locations to help patients and their families.

Stephanie Stahl