Lean on me

A breast cancer support group helps women get On With Life

Photo By David Robert

Women begin filing into the empty meeting room in the Radiation Oncology Center at Saint Mary’s Center for Health. They laugh, tease each other and swap garden tips. They range in age, and some wear jeans while others wear business suits. They could be any group—a book club, a parent-teacher association, a nonprofit board. None of them look sick, but these women have breast cancer. And they’re here to get on with life.

My erroneous assumption—that women with breast cancer should “look sick”—is one of the many myths that frustrate these women. By coming together once a week for the On With Life Breast Cancer Support Group, they’re able to voice those frustrations, vent their anger about their diagnoses, cry, laugh, offer and receive support, become educated, and say everything they can’t say at home, to others who know exactly what they’re going through.

Liz Thomas, a licensed social worker, has been the On With Life facilitator for nearly 10 years, leading the group meetings every Tuesday from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. She says it’s the only breast cancer support group in Northern Nevada, and its existence is what keeps many women going.

“We have some women who have had no more than a questionable mammogram and some with terminal diagnoses,” says Thomas. “Everyone’s welcome here, no matter what they need.”

She points to numerous studies showing an increase in positive outcomes among those who attend support groups. She chalks this up to not only the spiritual and emotional benefits that improve patients’ spirits, but also to the exposure to treatment alternatives, tests the women didn’t know to take or clinical trials in which they might take part.

As the women wait for today’s session to begin, they discuss the speaker they heard the night before. The issue of spirituality—one that frequently comes up here—is addressed. One recalls a difficult moment: “Someone actually told me, ‘You must have committed some terrible sin to have gotten breast cancer.’” Others then speak frankly about their own inner demons and their old fear that somehow they’ve done something to deserve this.

“If we’re pissed off, or confused, or afraid, we can say that here,” another woman says. “We can just let it all out, and no one here is going to judge us.”

Jan has been fighting cancer for 11 years and coming to On With Life for nine. She says that at one particular moment of crisis, when she felt too overwhelmed to tend to her garden, 15 On-With-Lifers showed up at her door, ready to work. “They just get you through it,” says Jan. “We’re family. We check up on each other.”

Not that the group is all about crisis—quite the contrary. “People think it’s all doom and gloom around here,” says another participant, Tricia. “People think we’re all sitting around here with breathing tubes, but it’s not like that. We have fun, too.”

And for some women, On With Life is the only place they can talk about cancer. “Our families often don’t want to talk about it,” says another woman. “They think it’s dwelling on the negative. But we still need to.”

On With Life isn’t all talk. Guest speakers often drop in to share insights and medical information. And the group participates in local fundraising events, like the Relay for Life, the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, and Moms on the Run.

But most of all, it’s shown these women the unexpected positive side of breast cancer—first and foremost, new friends. “We have a new appreciation for life,” adds Tricia. “It forces you to re-evaluate your priorities and to reconnect with your sense of self and your spirituality. So cancer has its gifts.”

For information about On With Life, call Liz Thomas at 770-6038.