Very few of us can go through life without some sort of support system. Whether we are dealing with metastatic breast cancer, other diseases, divorces, substance abuse, raising our children or just living one day to the next, having support can be the difference between struggling and flourishing. We are responsible for ourselves, but we are human and sometimes need others to help us deal with whatever it is we are experiencing. For some, acknowledging the need for support would somehow leave them feeling embarrassed and diminished. For others, embracing support is one of the ways they get through rough patches in life. Some of us have amazing family and friends who offer us the support we need, when we need it – often without our asking for it, but just because they know we need it. For others, there is no one who can give them support – often because those who are the closest to them may not be the ones who can offer the best support because they are too close to the situation and their support is wrapped in their own emotional connection. Sometimes, it’s just easier to share with (and accept support from) strangers because they hear what we want them to hear without the “noise” of relationships, connected experiences (both positive and negative) or other extraneous perceptions.
After I was first diagnosed at stage 1 in 1990, I attended a local breast cancer support group for almost 5 years. It was a very active group, facilitated by an oncology nurse and/or social worker. It met monthly and it was rare for there to be less than 20 women in attendance. Some women came once or twice and never returned. Others came regularly every month. Along the way, we lost women who had become our friends. Even now, all these years later, I remember the middle-aged Loretta, who had 15 malignant lymph nodes at her original diagnosis and was sailing along until, years later, the cancer spread and was aggressive. She passed away shortly thereafter. I remember Amy, who found a lump when she was pregnant. Her physician dismissed it as benign tissue caused by the hormonal changes of pregnancy. When she finally had a biopsy, the cancer had spread throughout her body. Her child was five when she passed. Both she and Loretta came to the group for support, but gave us so much more support than we could ever give them. Each faced the reality of her diagnosis with grace and dignity that lifted me and inspired me to be a woman who would never be defined by breast cancer. Their stories were powerful reminders to me that not every woman (or man) gets diagnosed at stage 1, and not everyone has treatment and walks away to live and enjoy the rest of her or his life as a breast cancer survivor.
Today, support groups have shifted (like most things in our world) to virtual, or on-line formats. The internet allows us to be more informed and has given us the ability to gain as much knowledge as we chose to have at any point from pre-diagnosis through treatment and beyond. There are statistics to scare us and statistics to reassure us. The more advanced our cancer, the scarier the statistics. “In-person” support groups exist, but many have fewer and fewer attendees as more cancer patients turn to the internet. Prior to having the internet, many people attended support groups to get information about their disease, Today, of course, the internet provides that information instantly, just for the asking (or Googling.) The latest incarnation of the support group involves “calling in” and participating via phone and/or a venue such as Skype. Although the way we get our information continues to change, I still believe in the power of traditional groups because seeing and hearing how others deal with their issues can’t be totally replaced by simply reading posts or connecting to a person on the other side of a computer screen. Emotions are best shared and understood with a caring look, touch or hug – all possible only in the physical presence of others.
Little did I know when I was first diagnosed that my choice to attend a support group would give me so many coping tools that I use every day as a woman now living with metastatic breast cancer. Thank you Loretta, Amy and every woman I met during those early days of my breast cancer journey. You still support this “lifer” in ways I cannot even begin to thank you for.
Don’t Stop Believing!
May you realize that even in your darkest moments, something wonderful and amazing can happen that will change your life and remind you to never stop living for those rays of light that will take away the dark.