5 Tips for Joining a Cancer Support Group
Having cancer is an intensely personal experience. As a woman in the JoyBoots Sanctuary Community recently said, confronting cancer has been “the most intimate and personal experience I’ve ever had.”
You are aware of how your body functions like never before. The breasts, colon, lungs, blood, or bones you took for granted may become a source of pain, vulnerability, shame, or loss. You may also have feelings of intense gratitude and appreciation for your body.
You are probed and investigated by tests and procedures that confront your sense of privacy and body integrity.
There’s a certain amount of dissociation required at times just to endure an intrusive, painful or frightening test or to get through a difficult day, week or month.
Your emotional response is deeply personal and unique as well.
Some people immediately turn to community to ask for support and prayer, sharing their experience openly. They gain energy by connecting with others and feel strengthened by the social contact, both with fellow survivors and with supporters.
Others prefer to keep their experience private and confidential, choosing not to tell loved ones at all or keeping their experience to a small trusted group, avoiding public disclosure. Depending on your career or security at your workplace, you may not feel comfortable with colleagues or competitors hearing of your illness.
In my 10 years facilitating Yoga and Talk Therapy groups, retreat and classes for survivors, I’ve met people with many different approaches to emotional survival and healing.
You get to CHOOSE the unique ways you feel safe, resilient, strengthened
When I was diagnosed, a local support group was recommended to me by an acquaintance who said: “This is a great group. They don’t just sit around ‘boo hooing’ all the time.” At that time, with a new baby and stage 3 breast cancer, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to put on a positive front in order to fit in. I was doing plenty of that to get through each day. What I actually needed was a place to be real with my feelings both positive and “negative.” I ended up dropping into a few support groups but didn’t connect deeply for fear of overwhelming others who were trying to be “positive.”
On the flip side, I hear from people who worry about getting “triggered” by hearing the experience of others. They worry it will make them more anxious or turn them “negative.”
One friend shared she was worried that joining a group would make her identify as a “victim” when she had fought so hard to stay positive and focused on a good outcome. The idea of sharing in a group was scary and irritating. She felt it would mean she’d have to reclaim a “cancer identity.” She worried that hearing the feelings of others could overwhelm or depress her.
Folks who are highly empathic worry they will take on the pain of others and may assume this is inevitable.
My experience with groups is that they are invaluable – both as SANCTUARIES to feel safe and connected with others who deeply understand and as LABS where you can experiment with sharing your thoughts and feelings in real time, taking risks to connect, learning from others to grow in your understanding of yourself. When it’s a good fit, a group is uplifting, energizing, and connecting.
Here are my top 5 tips for approaching cancer support groups:
1.Be willing to experiment. Try something once to see if it’s a good fit. Not all groups are well run or have healthy dynamics so it’s ok to be choosy. Even if it’s a good fit for someone else, it may not be for you. That’s ok. We are all different.
2.Ask questions and express your concerns to the leader, whether a professional or a peer. I love it when people talk about their fear of taking on the feelings or responsibility for other members because it gives me a chance to help them have healthy boundaries. We can come up with a strategy so I can step in and give them space to talk about it. Learning how to have these boundaries can translate to many relationships in your life.
3.Realize you can set boundaries. I remind people they have joined my groups first for their own healing not just to show up for others. You should not join a group assuming it’s your role to fix anyone else or take on their burdens. Just as nobody can “fix” you, don’t expect this of yourself.
4.Allow others to have their own experience. Just because someone else is caught in anger, anxiety, fear or even the “positive” feelings of gratitude, contentment, acceptance, doesn’t mean that has to be where you are. Everybody is different.
5.Talk about your feelings with the group as they come up. If you are feeling overwhelmed, share this with the group. If you are feeling content or having an insight, share it! You will likely be a voice for the whole group and your courage in sharing will lead to deeper connection.
So often a life threatening illness can leave you alone with your thoughts, fears and hopes, grief and gratitude. Coming together with other survivors helps you express yourself, tolerate and even celebrate your feelings and experiences, and find deeper meaning that can enrich your life.