Support Groups

December 15, 2012

I don’t remember when I’d first heard of support groups, but I do remember the first time someone suggested I join one.

It was spring of 2005 and my orthopedic oncologist, Dr. Cindy Kelly had just told me my left leg would need to be amputated because bone cancer had returned to my leg near the ankle. The tumors were so big that cutting them out would not leave enough bone intact for an artificial joint to work. I needed to lose my leg in order to save my life.

While discussing the technicalities of cutting my leg off, healing and getting fitted for a prosthetic, Dr. Kelly suggested the idea of joining a support group.

“This is going to be hard on you, Mike”, she said. “You’re going to feel a sense of loss, like someone died. Please consider it.”

I replied that I would, but promptly pushed the idea to the back burner. I had handled the emotional baggage of all my other operations. What made this one any different? I was conveniently forgetting the year I’d spent in counseling in my mid-twenties coming to terms with growing up disabled and the years of feeling like I’d been cast aside by everyone.

The idea of a support group came back to me about a year after my conversation with Dr. Kelly; about the same time the cancer came back as well. I was grappling with the news of cancer’s return and the idea of more surgery, unsure of what to do next and wondering what I should feeling about the process besides anger and betrayal.

David Bernard, a co-worker at the radio station where I worked, walked into my office and said, “I’m sorry to hear that your cancer is back. But I’ll bet you don’t know that several of us here know exactly how you feel, because we’re all fighting cancer too.”

“You’re right”, I answered. “I didn’t know that.”

“We call ourselves the Chemo-Sabes”, David said. “We’re getting together for lunch next week and we’d like you to join us. The group consists of me, Susan, Teri, a couple of others and now you. It’s nothing formal. We just have lunch together and share where we’re at with treatments and what our doctors are saying. What do you think?”

I considered it for a minute and thought ‘why not?’. It seemed like the worst that could happen is I would get to know some of my co-workers better. And everyone of the Chemo-Sabes were people I liked.

“Okay”, I told David. “I’ll do it. I’ll join you guys for lunch.”

“Great”, David answered. “You can ride with me. We’ll leave at 11:30am.”

Over the next couple of days, I actually found myself counting down the days until our lunch. I was looking forward to it and more excited than I would have thought. The day arrived and we headed out for lunch. I was a little nervous and not sure what to expect.

We got to the restaurant ahead of everyone else and found our table. The rest of the group arrived and before I could say anything, Teri MacLennan wrapped her arms around me in a warm hug, welcoming me to the group. We all sat down, ordered lunch and began to talk.

Soon it was my turn and I nervously looked around the table. I took a deep breath and began talking about my cancer journey. Before I knew it, nearly 45 minutes had gone by, our lunch plates were mostly empty, there were smiles, a few tears, lots of reassuring looks, and many words of encouragement directed my way.

More than anything, I felt like I had set down a 200 pound backpack. My heart was lighter than it had been in years. They understood. My friends around the table understood better than anyone what I had felt, what I had feared and what I had faced. And in that moment, I learned why support groups can be a cancer patient’s best weapon, and best friend, in our journey with cancer.

Very often, one of the hardest things about cancer isn’t learning that we have it; it’s telling others that we have it. Naturally we try and soften the news rather than hurt family and friends. And we push our own feelings aside for the moment. While the intent here is noble, we end up shortchanging ourselves because we never get to talk about our feelings in an open, candid manner.

Having that discussion, especially with our fellow patients, is actually an essential part of our cancer journey. By sharing our hopes, our fears and everything in between, we’re calmer and less stressed about our cancer. Releasing that stress in a positive manner lets our body use its energy elsewhere. The result is we’re helping ourselves become stronger and better prepared to move forward in our cancer battle.

This isn’t just rhetoric. The idea of mental and physical health being interdependent is widely accepted in the medical community There is a ton of research showing that cancer patients with a positive mental attitude respond better to treatment and live longer; regardless of the type of cancer they’re dealing with.

So how do you find a support group? Asking your health care provider is a good place to start. Providers are trained to treat the whole person these days. That’s not just a cliche’, but the way care is administered now. It’s why the form we fill out for every return visit asks how we’re feeling emotionally.

Let your health care team know you’re interested in finding a support group. MD Anderson has its own in-house network of support groups and other services to help you deal with the range of emotions we all face as cancer patients. They can provide you with a list of the specific services available. You can also click on the Getting Support link under Patient and Cancer Information on MD Anderson’s website.

To be completely honest, when my doctor first mentioned a support group, I was too full of pride and too embarrassed to consider the idea. When the cancer came back, my fear and need for help pushed pride and embarrassment right out the window. After that first lunch with my friends, my only regret was not sharing my cancer journey sooner.

You’ve chosen to give yourself the best chance for beating cancer by coming to MD Anderson. Don’t shortchange yourself by missing a part of your treatment that can help you more than you might realize. Find a support group to share your journey with. Next to coming to MD Anderson, it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself, and your loved ones, to make treatment easier. Once you’ve done it, you may find, like I did, that your only regret is you didn’t do it sooner.