Last week I finally decided to check out one of the local breast cancer support groups in my area. I had been thinking about doing this for a while. I’ve never been much of a “joiner” and somehow never felt a pressing need for a support group other than my family, friends, dogs and online community. So like usual, I took my time before actually attending a meeting.
I knew eventually I would attend a meeting, at least to find out my reaction to it. My cancer diagnosis has changed me a lot and one thing about me that has changed the most, is my greater desire to reach out to others. I’ve never been particularly outgoing, so this change is really quite significant. Everything I read tells me this is a common reaction after a cancer diagnosis. Many people say they are profoundly changed by their diagnosis and want to make a real difference to others also diagnosed, not that they didn’t want to make a difference before their diagnosis, but afterward they feel compelled to do so. I get that. I believe it’s a coping mechanism for our own healing. Helping someone else “make sense” of their cancer, really helps us even more, at least that seems to be true for me.
So, back to the meeting. Generally speaking, I was impressed with my experience and plan to go back. After meandering down various hospital hallways and finally ending up in the basement near the cafeteria, I walked into the spacious meeting room with that old familiar “Can you tell by looking at me I’ve had cancer?” feeling.
The group this particular evening was small since it was snowing. There were only about 8 of us, plus the two facilitators. The group was a “nice mix” of ages. After all, it’s not that great if everyone else in your group seems waaay older or waaay younger than you. Come to think of it, maybe this is one great advantage of being “middle-aged!” You at least sort of fit in with more age groups??
The first hour was spent on a presentation given by a sleep disorder professional. I liked this idea a lot, since it gave us all time to just be there and settle in before getting to the more personal stuff. Plus, it was a great opportunity to learn something. The topic was quite interesting and informative, although it was mostly about sleep itself, not how to GET or STAY asleep, which is what I really need to know how to do. The presentation was followed by a short discussion time.
Lastly, we got to the “nitty gritty” reason for the support group. The part where you go around and say your name and state your “whatever it is you want to state” about your cancer situation. When my turn came, I hesitated a little, but then told fragments of my story. It was the first time I had said this stuff out loud to a group of people I didn’t know other than medical people. It was like “owning” my cancer all over again, but it actually felt good to do that. I’m not even sure why. Perhaps it was simple self-validation. Still, hearing myself say this stuff out loud, continued to feel surreal. I wonder if that feeling ever ends??
Listening to the others share about themselves was comforting, distressing, compelling, sad, tear- jerking, hopeful and just plain emotional. One woman actually broke down and cried about her fears of losing her job, health insurance and house, as well as the chemotherapy she was about to begin. That’s when the purpose of such a support group really hit home for me. It’s a safe place to share your fears. You don’t have to keep your guard up or pretend to feel what you do not. Most importantly, it’s a place where others can gently advise you, encourage you and listen to you, without judging you.
The rest of the women in the group did just that, or at least tried to. Mostly we listened. We all managed to chime in and give a little gentle advice and encouragement to that woman. We even managed to get her to laugh. We understood where she was coming from.
By giving her a few moments of compassion, support and genuine caring, we really gave those things to ourselves as well. That’s what a support group is all about. What you give comes right back at you. It was a good feeling to participate in that exchange.
Other than my friends and family, my best support still comes from my new online community of friends. They all continue to amaze and inspire me on a daily basis. I love not having to leave my house to “meet” with them. I can share just about anything (and I do) and I know somebody will totally “get it.” I will probably never actually see any of them face-to-face, but I don’t need to. Without meeting me in person, I know them, and they in turn know at least parts of me better than some of my oldest friends, quite a remarkable statement.
One other thing I almost forgot to mention, during the meeting we were also served a nice healthy light dinner! And the whole evening was free. How can you not love that?
Everyone’s cancer experience is unique. Obviously, everyone doesn’t need or want a face-to-face support group and that’s OK, but if you’ve been thinking about going to a support group for anything, go ahead. Give it a try! I think I’ll be going back.