Cancer Support Groups Provide Meaningful Services to Cancer Patients
Support group: why does it have such a negative connotation for many of us? I know plenty of women who’ve responded to the hospital social worker’s information about support groups with a flippant, “Nah, I’m fine, I don’t need that.” Or a more hesitant “I don’t think I want to sit around with a bunch of other cancer patients and be sad; it doesn’t sound very useful.” Or a simple “I don’t have time for that stuff.” Heck, I used a variation of all three of those responses myself, over the course of treatment.
But what are we really saying, when we say we don’t want or need a support group? That we don’t want support? Or that we don’t want the doleful trappings it implies, when experienced in a formal setting?
When I was diagnosed with cancer, a friend put me in touch with one of her friends who’d been diagnosed four months previously. Barb and I started meeting for coffee regularly, checking up on each other’s treatment, comparing notes on our kids’ response to our cancer, laughing about “playing the cancer card” when we wanted to get out of something at work.
We became friends. Not “cancer buddies;” real girlfriends. And when one of my son’s teachers, Ellen, was diagnosed with breast cancer, and was looking down the same path we’d been traveling, we asked her to join us for a cup of coffee. Many’s the afternoon we sat around a table, mugs in hand, and admired one another’s new hair, or laughed over side effects.
Lee-Lee, Ellen’s year-old daughter, often joined us. (And seeing Lee-Lee toddle around the funeral home at her mother’s wake, less than 18 months after we’d started meeting, is still one of my most wrenching memories ever.)
After Ellen died Barb and I continued to meet, but our group wasn’t smaller with Ellen’s passing. It seemed one or the other of us kept hearing about an acquaintance or friend-of-a-friend who’d just been diagnosed with breast cancer. So we asked these women to join us. And gradually the group of friends outgrew the coffee shop, and moved to a local pub, where it was only logical we’d switch from coffee to margaritas or Chardonnay. We were all enjoying the heck out of ourselves. None of us wanted to miss a get-together, so for planning purposes I formalized the day, place, and time: first Friday of each month, 4:30 p.m., Murphy’s pub.
Now, five years after those first cups of coffee, there are two dozen of us on my e-mail list. We call ourselves TGIF, or “the support group without a social worker.” And the hospital social workers have started referring women to me: women who’ve refused their offer of a formal support group, but are struggling emotionally. Women who NEED other women who’ve been through cancer, but don’t know how to connect with them. Women who would rather sit around a table and laugh, than sit in a circle of folding chairs and cry.
Please, don’t get me wrong; hospital support groups are a lifesaver for many women. But not for all women. If you’re someone who’s been through cancer and wants to reach out to others in an informal way, beyond the walls of the hospital, find one woman and ask her out for coffee. You’ll be surprised at how quickly the word spreads: “support group” comes in more than one flavor.
Published On: April 16, 2007