Lessons learned from the ‘metastatic’ cancer support group

Thursday, August 26, 2010

As I walk down the hallway in the British Columbia Cancer Agency’s Vancouver Clinic, I can hear the excited Voices and chuckles from the first arrivals of my first ‘metastatic’ cancer support group. Sydney Foran, the social worker who has led the group for several years, walks beside me, her stride is smooth, and her face shines as she looks forward. Sydney will mentor me alongside this remarkable group of women. As a full-time oncologist with a passion for empowering people beyond getting physical care, I feel like I’m coming home.

There are eight women who gather this particular afternoon. They have traveled from near and far, play different roles in their outside lives, and vary outwardly in appearance and life history as much as any sample of society. But there is something very refreshing about being with them. Perhaps it’s the way they greet each other or the way they offer me a chair so readily in their group. You can see it shining in their eyes. I see little of the masks that most people wear at work and in the social circles. They care deeply about each other. As they catch up with each other before the group starts, the first lesson is dawning on me.

The support group is not something that they’ve tacked on to their lives. It’s not an extra parcel in a large bag of tasks to be performed each week. The group here is at the very core of their psychological (and sometimes practical) support. They have literally created a web of friends who deeply understand each other, who love each other, and will be there on the phone or otherwise in a heartbeat. I feel lightened by being in the midst of a truely caring community.

The group starts with a simple exercise to bring the energy of each person back into the present – to ground them in the here and now. And then people speak from their heart. People typically feel completely and utterly safe to tell their own truth. It’s refreshing. One week I heard a woman speak about the grief she is suffering thinking about all the changes in her life. I don’t remember exactly what she said but she talked about the effect of the cancer on her family, and how she would miss them, and the frustrations of it all. Her voice was wavering, and the tears were pooling in her eyes. And in the same breath she told us of the incredible peace she has been experiencing, like she was being held in these loving arms, cradled in a source bigger than herself. This was my second big lesson.

People can experience turbulence at the psychological level and still be held by a deep inner peace. Like walking on the beach during a hurricane, the waves crashing, the wind blowing and soaking you to the skin, may represent the difficult psychological times on the cancer journey. But the same storm viewed from a mile up in the sky or 40 feet under the water’s surface is a much more peaceful place. This woman taught me that we can hold both perspectives at the same time.

There are many more lessons to be learned as you sit in the circle. From the very practical ways to negotiate the medical system (a woman in this group told us how she went to medical records directly to get the results of her CAT scan instead of waiting a week for her doctor to call her) to the deeply spiritual. Perhaps the most important lesson is that the wisdom is already there in each of us. We each heave a golden heart, the wise and kind part of ourselves, which can help guide us along the journey. The beauty of the support group is it provides us the time and space to listen to our own inner voice. It was a true honour to be part of the group and to learn from these remarkable women.

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