Remembering Betty Segal, healer, activist, filmmaker, ‘Mayor of Solano Avenue’

Segal, who spent years caring for women with cancer, died April 14 at 75.

Betty Segal. Credit: Facebook

Betty Segal, a healer, artist, activist and decades-long volunteer at the Charlotte Maxwell Clinic, died April 14 at home in Berkeley. She was 75.

Her gentle spirit, wry wit and tenacity will be deeply missed by her family, friends and community.

Born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, Betty went to Walnut Hills High School, then moved to California to attend Occidental College in Los Angeles. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she earned her MFA from UCLA Film School. She then settled permanently in California, first in Oakland and then Berkeley.

Betty was initially a photographer and documentary filmmaker. In her 20s, she was involved with Solidarity Films, which screened and distributed anti-war films. She also documented the lives of people on the margins, filming Filipino farmworkers, taking photographs of jockeys at the racetrack and families in laundromats. She later made a film exploring sexism in soap operas and helped create an oral history of elderly Maryknoll nuns. 

Over time, Betty broadened her focus to integrative bodywork. She trained in Swedish massage, then expanded to craniosacral therapy. She was also certified in lymphedema massage, which reduces the pain of inflammation caused by damage to lymph nodes, often from cancer treatment. She provided lymphedema treatment for years and also established a public program in lymphedema prevention and treatment that was one of the first of its kind and presented annually in three languages.

Betty’s work in Swedish massage led her to the Charlotte Maxwell Clinic, which provides free integrative care for low-income women with cancer. Her two decades of experience here were among the most meaningful of her life.

Betty initially volunteered at the clinic as a massage therapist, then helped the clinic establish its in-home care service, which was similar to hospice work. She volunteered within this service for many years, providing massages, craniosacral treatments and emotional support to women in their homes in their last days. She also provided lymphedema treatments.

Betty’s experience providing hospice care shaped her commitment to honoring the lives of women who were lost to cancer. She helped establish an annual memorial for clinic patients who had died in the previous year, which outgrew the clinic’s small offices. Her friends recall the warmth, beauty and celebratory spirit of the events that Betty oversaw. 

Betty Segal on the beach in New Zealand. Credit: Ann Segal

Betty was also an active supporter of the SOMArts Cultural Center’s Día de los Muertos project, founded by her friend, the artist and activist René Yañez. Several years ago, she memorialized her grandfather, Alfred Segal, a progressive journalist at The Cincinnati Post, with an altar at this annual community event. 

Betty developed lasting connections with people from all walks of life. She was devoted to her friends and family, who cherished her, and was so well-known in her community that her neighbors called her the Mayor of Solano Avenue. She was a cinephile, studied Ikebana and was an avid supporter of Bay Area artists. She also traveled to Japan with her Ikebana class and reunited with her sisters in Hawaii and New Zealand.

In her later years, Betty faced her own cancer, sharing her experiences to help others. She was courageous and careful in her choices of which parts of Western and holistic medicine she integrated into her treatment, and she credited these choices, and the care of her providers, with helping her go into remission twice from Stage 4 cancer.

Throughout her experience with cancer, Betty frequently expressed gratitude and awe about being alive. Her embrace of the world and its imperfections was influenced by Buddhism, her belief in social justice and her secular Jewish upbringing, a combination she liked to describe as “Jewdhism.” She was a gentle and intrepid warrior.

Betty is survived by her sisters, Elle (Grahame McKenzie) and Ann (Jerry Malsh); her cousin Karin (Paul Sanders); her niece, Lisa Glazer (Michael Pekowsky); her nephews, Michael Glazer and Joe Glazer (Hamidah Basar); and her great-nieces and nephews, Sophia and Caleb Pekowsky and Bebe and Cisco Glazer.

Donations may be sent to the Charlotte Maxwell Clinic, the SOMArts Cultural Center or any other organization that was important to Betty. SOMArts will include an altar for her in its 2021 Día De Los Muertos event in October.

Betty’s family extends deep appreciation to her close friends, as well as to her doctors and her holistic health providers, for all the support they provided to Betty. A memorial will be announced at a later date.