Fittingly, it was a rainy day. We were gathered to wish our breast cancer support group leader a happy retirement. I believe she had been a leader of this cancer group for fifteen years. I think we all figured she was certainly entitled to retire. A fellow survivor herself, she would now be helping her own mom through breast cancer, but we were still sad that she was leaving us.
Julie, our support group leader, had helped us down this path of uncertainty called breast cancer. She knew when to speak up, and better still, she knew when and how to listen – really listen. At every meeting, we each were given time to speak about whatever cancer worry was currently niggling away on our mind. Our leader had a knack for being able to meet each of us exactly where we were at the moment – just diagnosed, active treatment, or struggling for "normal" after all the treatments were done – she understood all of it.
Our support group leader offered concrete help. She was always on the lookout for resources and helpful speakers to come talk to our group. Julie was patient, kind and caring, even years after her own cancer experience. She still understood us.
Fellow support group members understood too. It was truly a break to spend time every two weeks in a room full of women who understood. On our last meeting day, I was surprised by how many of us "confessed" that we were really not the support group type of person (whatever that means), yet we each loved Julie's group. Julie had the right mix of excellent speakers and resources as well as her own nonjudgmental support and encouragement.
We were the lucky ones – not every survivor lives near a support group. In our large metropolitan area, there are actually several support groups. Cancer Support Community is one place to search for local groups, and you can also reach out to the American Cancer Society. Cancer-specific Facebook support groups can be a huge help too, especially if you remember that each person and each diagnosis can be a bit unique. Still, face-to-face, eye-to-eye contact and real hugs bring important things that are not possible on the Internet.
When you have a cancer diagnosis, be patient and gentle with yourself, and research to find the support of others who struggle with a similar cancer diagnosis. It is worth the effort to make these person-to-person connections to get through and beyond this disease. Many years ago, my talk therapist stressed the importance of not going through cancer alone: Do not do cancer alone. That is probably the most important cancer advice out there.
Do not despair. I remember Julie, our retiring leader, saying that in all the years she has run the support group, she has never seen a patient not come out the other side as a better human being: stronger, more compassionate, wiser. I believe her and I believe you can learn ways to cope with this awful diagnosis too.