Support Groups…Don’t Roll Your Eyes, Read This

Sometimes you need a little help, other times you give a little help.

The subject I want to write about tonight is cancer support groups.  For every single one of you that is just about to stop reading here and move on to Facebook or YouTube…STOP.  I am getting to something important and I would really appreciate your attention.  This won’t be a long post, so stick with me…Please.  In the early part of my diagnosis, when the subject was brought up, I used to ask myself, Why should I join a cancer support group?  I just wanted to do my treatment and get it over with. The idea of a roomful of bald, weepy strangers was about as attractive as having my port accessed by a nervous, first year, night shift nurse.  But time went on and I matured as a cancer patient.  And today, I think cancer support groups, or support groups for any traumatic and stressful experience are a great idea.

Throughout my journey, almost every survivor I have talked to, and especially young adult cancer victims, have almost universally dismissed the concept of a support group as, “not for them,” or “not my style.”  That is of course with the exception of the fine folks who belong to the cancer support group in Atlanta that I belong to, Young Adult Cancer Survivors of Atlanta (YACS) and their fearless leader Jenn Potter.  To all those who simply dismiss it, and especially to any of you who KNOW someone recently diagnosed, in treatment, or adjusting to the “new normal” after cancer treatment, please re-consider a support group.

I suspect that not all cancer support groups are as much fun as a YACS dinner where you are just as likely to hear about someones anxiety over their upcoming PET scan, as you are to wind up discussing the complete hilarity that lives on the website Seriously, check that website when you have freedom to laugh out loud.  However, the people at support groups are not just sitting around and listening to how bad others have it.  I think many people make a false connection between being a member of a support group, and admitting there is something wrong with themselves.

A support group is not just a place to discuss problems.  It is a place to find people you can relate to on a topic that the rest of your social circle may have no experience dealing with.  My Dad was a firefighter for 37 years and we were recently talking about the unexpected similarities between me talking to other cancer victims, and him talking to other firefighters.  While your spouse, parents, friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers want the best for you, want to show their support and want to be there for you, they cannot understand what you are feeling without actually having done it themselves.  My Dad agreed it was the same with firefighters.  He could share his stories with me, my sister or our Mom, but we would never “get it” the way another firefighter who has been inside the smoke and the darkness of a burning building will get it.  He is retired now (another life changing experience) and goes to breakfast once a month with a big group of retired firefighters to catch up with his friends.  Please, if any of you see my Dad, don’t tell him that his breakfast group could be considered a support group, he probably wouldn’t like that.  Plus, they just hired my company to coordinate lodging for their annual trip to Las Vegas, so I need him to stay with the group as my carefully placed inside salesman!  Just kidding…thanks for the referral Dad.  Did you notice the word I used a few lines back…friends?  With a little luck, the people in your support group become your friends and the potential is there to form really solid relationships because of the intensity of the shared experience.

I believe any person with a unique, unusual or challenging circumstance would find comfort in relating to those in the same or similar circumstances.  To those of you who have been there, you know what I am talking about.  Nobody in a support group is going to give you that look and the all to familiar question, “So, how ARE you?”  And that is why I feel anyone who has been through an exceptionally stressful experience should seek out a group of peers.  It helps to know you are not alone and that there are people who understand exactly what you are going through.

And finally, if you have dealt with your situation very well and feel that you have survived and gotten to the other side of adversity with no real scars, and you think you don’t need any additional encouragement, then you REALLY should join a support group.  There are people who need you.  There are people who received news of their diagnosis a few days ago and they are lying in bed tonight, eyes wide open wondering, wondering…  They are full of questions, and have no answers.  They don’t know what to expect, they are scared of what will become of them, their family, their job.  They need hope.  They need someone like you to tell them what it is going to be like, or at least to tell them what it was like for you.  They need to hear the human side of it.  Anyway, I could go on with rhetorics, but I won’t…I did promise this would be short.

If I have convinced you to look into a support group or a peer to peer group, or to encourage your friends brother who was recently diagnosed, the next question will be, where do I start?  I would start with Livestrong.  The page at this address is a resource guide organized by category and states that can connect you with innumerable resources for connecting and finding humanity in this crazy cancer world.  If you don’t find what you want in there, send me an email and I will help you find a group that suits you.  Have a nice night.

2 thoughts on “Support Groups…Don’t Roll Your Eyes, Read This

  1. Hi Dan,
    I just want to second what you write. On diagnosis I had exactly the same reaction as you i.e. there was no way I was going to sit around with a bunch of baldy strangers complaining about how hard we had it. However, I did decide to take advantage of an offer in my area (I live in Copenhagen, Denmark) for physical training for patients undergoing chemotherapy (through our national health service). This involved meeting up 4 times a week to train in a gym at the hospital under the supervision of physios and nurses. We were a group of around 14. It really transformed how I dealt with my period of treatment. We didn’t sit around moaning about how tough we had it, but instead met to do something constructive. We had lots of laughs and as you say were able to understand each other in a way others can’t. After our 6 week period was up most of us kept on meeting up regularly at a gym. Now most of us have started working again, but we have our own facebook group where we share experiences and we meet up every 8 weeks or so. So I just want to back you up and say to anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation that they should make an effort to find a group that suits them!

  2. Jessica says:

    I am a 25 year old living with cancer. I have been with my boyfriend for 6 years. I have hodgkin’s lymphoma for going on 5 years. I have been through 2 different chemo treatments and a bone marrow transplant. As of right now I will not be cured. As with any relationship my relationship has hit rocky waters. We need a support group or someone that can give us some advise.I have been to some support group. But have not found one for people my age and situation. We are trying to figure out how go forward and get married and have kids. HELP!!

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