The discovery of breast cancer profoundly affected all my relationships: husband, sons, close and casual friends, co-workers, and bare acquaintances. Unless those folks had experienced it themselves, they could not possibly comprehend the emotions and perceptions with which I grappled. Finding a breast cancer support group was essential to my psyche, to my well-being.
My quest to find understanding soul mates ended when I joined a breast cancer support group for younger women after my first chemotherapy infusion. We met at the local hospital with a trained facilitator. At the time I was 43 and thought myself too old, but my Christian friend, diagnosed a few months earlier, convinced me to go because I had young children ranging in age from 3 to 11.
The sessions were therapeutic for a newly diagnosed woman. We shared our ups and downs and the inappropriate words people said to us during our ordeals. Tips on caring for ourselves during treatment were invaluable. Insurance hassles were discussed. The group was mostly secular, but two of us Christians found opportunities to talk about our faith.
As we were completing our treatments we sensed that we had outgrown the need for a clinical setting. We decided to assemble at a member’s home once every few months instead of meeting at the hospital every two weeks. What a pleasant change from the sterile environment of a conference room! I did feel some remorse at leaving the “official” group led by the facilitator, as I was no longer in a position to help others who were newly diagnosed. But we all have to decide how we will spend our valuable time, and I still had a husband and three young sons at home to consider.
At some point I realized that too much time away from my sons represented more than just my getting self-help for cancer-related needs. The extra time was turning into a period of self-absorption. Was I setting up my own City of Pity? As a result, I made sure to spend special time with them, including playing board and card games, watching movies with them, and just listening to how they spent their days and what was important to them.
After we moved to a rural community, God led our family to a loving church. I continued to attend the support group for a while, but soon after my move it dispersed. A few years later I experienced a recurrence of my breast cancer. Since no conveniently located support group existed in this area, I joined an online group through the Association of Cancer Online Resources. This forum (known as ACOR) provided invaluable information and tips beyond what I could glean from the Internet or various books about recurrences. I found that treatments for breast cancer had changed substantially since my earlier encounter with chemotherapy. In particular, it seemed important to update myself on the latest targeted biological drugs.
I was diagnosed with my recurrence and being treated with chemotherapy before one such drug, Herceptin, was approved for treating early-stage breast cancer.
After its approval, about 14 women got together in Bakersfield, California to begin their one-year Herceptin infusions as a group. Calling themselves HER2 Sisterhood, the women typically sat in a corner of the infusion area. Not only did they tell stories and jokes about their “chemo brain” and weight challenges, but they also gossiped and vented their frustrations over the daily grinds of shaving legs and paying taxes.
I have found that support groups are generally useful, but the commonality that brings the members together in the first place doesn’t last. The groups tend to disband or splinter into smaller units. I myself have found I fell away unless I shared other interests of group members, or was led to help new members.
In addition to support groups, chat rooms, discussion groups, social networks, and blogs, I benefited from professional and lay counseling. People outside my breast cancer support group who helped me during my struggles included nurses, unexpectedly helpful acquaintances, long-lost relatives, and complete strangers. Such people can become friends for life, perhaps as close as those we already have.
Social isolation need not follow from a cancer diagnosis. Find a breast cancer support group through local hospitals, clinics, and the Internet. Help is only a phone call or click away. Let your fingers do the clicking through the Google pages, and see how God will meet your needs.
He certainly met mine!
A former attorney, Jan Hasak authored Mourning Has Broken: Reflections on Surviving Cancer (Xulon Press 2008). In this memoir she shares her long journey through two bouts with breast cancer.