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Circle the Wagons

How a Support Group Can Help You along Your Journey through Cancer

by Lynn Eib

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I remember so well the first cancer support group meeting I attended. I was 36 years old and working as a reporter for a local newspaper. I had recently written a story about our community hospital’s new support group and interviewed its facilitator, Mary. Two months later when I showed up at a meeting, Mary naturally assumed I was visiting the group as a follow-up to my published article. “How sweet that you would come to our meeting,” she said with a big smile.

“Actually, I was diagnosed with colon cancer last month,” I said. Her jaw dropped. It was an incredible irony.

I had to talk myself into attending that meeting because I wasn’t sure I really wanted to spend time with a bunch of people with cancer. As introductions were made around the table, I happened to be the most newly diagnosed and the last to introduce myself. I burst into tears before I could even get my name out. I felt silly for falling apart like that, but I had been trying to hold it together in front of everyone else for so long that it felt good to finally let down my guard with others who had “been there, done that.”

I believe there are two reasons for people to attend support groups – either to be encouraged or to be an encourager.

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Lynn Eib

That was more than 20 years ago. Since then, I started my own Cancer Prayer Support Group, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a new person who didn’t at least get a little teary at the first meeting.

My friend Chris, a brain tumor survivor since 1999, says what initially gave her hope after her diagnosis was a cancer support group in our area that was actually called H.O.P.E. (Help for Oncology Patients & Encouragement). Soon she began attending my Cancer Prayer Support Group as well. “We can all talk about things we can relate to that others might not understand so well,” she says. “And what I still find very helpful is that we laugh together and have a great time. Yes, there are times we cry together, but we’ve actually been asked to keep down the noise [from all the laughter] when there are other meetings going on in rooms near us!”

After my friend Ken was diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2002, he believed for a while that he wouldn’t need things like support groups. “I assumed that because of my faith I wouldn’t need other forms of support, such as groups, family counseling, and massage therapy, but I was dead wrong,” Ken explains.

Many years later and cancer-free, Ken urges newly diagnosed individuals not to try to go it alone. “Circle the wagons – family, friends, coworkers, and anyone else who can and will be an available asset in your battle,” he says. “You can never have too many assets!”

From my experience, and from the literally thousands of cancer survivors I’ve met, Ken’s advice is right on the money. We may not be pioneers in covered wagons, but we cancer survivors can’t have too many people surrounding us with encouragement along our journey.

I hear a lot of reasons why cancer survivors and their caregivers don’t attend support group meetings. Often people tell me, “I’m not really so depressed that I need to come.” To which I reply, “I need people there who aren’t depressed to support those who are!”

I believe there are two reasons for people to attend support groups – either to be encouraged or to be an encourager. And I’m pretty sure every survivor and caregiver fits into one of those two categories.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Lynn Eib is a longtime colon cancer survivor, journalist, author, and an oncology patient advocate. This article is adapted from her book 50 Days of Hope: Daily Inspiration for Your Journey through Cancer, published June 2012 by Tyndale House.

To find a faith-based cancer support group or to start your own, visit CancerPatientAdvocate.com.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2012.

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