Cancer support groups: A cancer patient's perspective
It has been almost two-and-a-half years since I was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer with bone metastasis.
For now, I've reached a point of stability and a NED (no evidence of disease) status.
Although the psychological aspects of this diagnosis and the resulting changes in my body have taken their toll, I've been lucky enough to have found a couple of cancer support groups along the way.
My first cancer support group
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I didn't know anyone who had cancer or who'd been through cancer treatment. I decided to find a cancer support group.
Unfortunately, I only had a few chances to attend before moving to Houston, but this was a great opportunity to learn more about this cancer journey I was embarking on.
Only four or five women attended each session, but they helped me learn that there was hope in my diagnosis.
Luckily for me, another woman in this group also was a stage IV patient. She'd been diagnosed seven years earlier and was currently NED after resection of her liver metastasis.
This provided a human face to counter the grim statistics that I faced in my literature searches.
Why I avoid breast cancer support groups
When I first moved to Houston, I avoided support groups at MD Anderson.
Breast cancer support groups just didn't seem right for me. After attending the breast cancer support group in Illinois and from discussions with other breast cancer patients at MD Anderson, I've found that some of the issues I have with advanced cancer differ from those in the general breast cancer community, especially at the beginning of treatment.
I was struggling to deal with my own diagnosis and was unsure if I would be able to handle listening to other people's situations.
Finding hope in cancer support groups
Lately, I've been attending two support groups through MD Anderson -- the Advanced Cancer Support Group and the Body Image Therapy Program's BODY group. Both have been very helpful as I try to handle my post-cancer life.
Discussions in the BODY group help me see how other cancer patients navigate life after sometimes disfiguring treatments.
And, with the Advanced Cancer Support Group, it has been wonderful to be able to be in a room where everyone faces the same degree of uncertainty in their cancer journey, whether we are suffering from prostate, breast cancer or some other cancer.
We all know that there is not a "cure" for our disease, but we still hold onto hope that we can extend our lives through the treatments we receive. As I have seen with others in this group, the longer a person maintains some stability with their disease, the more one begins to move from a survival mode to a position of trying to fit back into society.
Learning about myself by connecting with others
In support groups, you'll always find someone whose struggle is different from yours. Sometimes their experiences are better and sometimes worse.
For example, both men and women attend the Advanced Cancer Group. I enjoy the different perspectives that men bring when dealing with cancer.
Being in a group with people different from me allow me lift up someone who may need a new perspective on what they're going through. I often see some of my own issues reflected in their related experiences.
The give-and-take of cancer support groups
Participating in a cancer support group is very much a give-and-take experience. You have to listen as much as you talk. This is the best part, especially if the group is led by a facilitator who's capable of redirecting a member who wants to turn it into a personal session.
However, don't worry if you feel uncomfortable sharing your experience. A support group may not be a good fit for you at this time.
Sometimes, I feel very vulnerable discussing changes with my body due to cancer or openly talking about my own mortality. Dealing with someone else's struggles or their anger and grief also can be difficult when I am having a "good" day.
Finding support in the face of isolation
Cancer is an isolating disease. But being part of support groups has helped me feel more connected to the greater community. Seeing someone who's successfully navigating this uncertain time in their life can bring hope when you're having a personal crisis.
Even though I've received compassionate and loving support from my friends, family and community, it's been very therapeutic to talk to others who have gone through the physical and emotional pain that cancer brings.
Sandra Bishnoi was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer with bone metastasis in January 2011; she currently has no evidence of disease. Prior to her diagnosis, she was a chemistry professor and scientist living in Chicago. She is now in pursuit of a new identity with the aid of her two young children, her supportive husband and the Houston scientific community.