When it comes to fighting cancer, many people seem to want to go it alone. For some reason we view the cancer struggle as a private affair and often hold at arms length people who might otherwise have helped us immensely. I know because I was certainly one of those people in 1979 when I was first diagnosed with a lymphoma as a teenager. In 1987 when I was admitted to Wellington hospital with widespread, advanced disease I was still of the mind that the business of beating my cancer was mine alone, making it clear to even my closest friends that they were to leave me alone until I surfaced again, with full health restored.
You can therefore imagine my response when invited to attend cancer support groups back then. I avoided them like the plague. I was clearly a loner when it came to facing my health problems but on top of that I had a terribly negative image of cancer support groups. I had this preconception of mutual moaning forums. I also very uncharitably believed people who joined a group were not strong enough to face their battles alone. I saw myself as stronger than that.
I was intrigued then in the early 1990s when, with an early notion of writing a book on boosting quality of life and maybe even the odds of beating cancer I came across screeds of material lauding cancer support groups for their therapeutic benefits. My reading suggested a safe, positive and unpretentious environment where participants could express their feelings but also simply share the nuances and peculiarities of the cancer experience with people in the same predicament as they.
First and foremost, the literature said, a support group enabled you to express yourself in a safe and truly understanding forum. An important benefit of a group was said to be that it allowed the cancer patient to regain some sense of control in their lives after a period since their diagnosis where they had quite possibly felt out of control in every sense. Amongst other people facing similar challenges life crises are put into better perspective. I knew as a cancer survivor that when diagnosed with the disease you can and often do feel like the only one afflicted.
In 1994 I received another recurrence scare. This time my recurrence was localized and some weeks of radiotherapy cleared the disease. However for me that didnt lessen the usual associated fears, reflections and element of post-treatment depression. I decided to change my coping pattern and took steps to link up with a support group for a period of time. What I experienced reflected all the good things Id read about cancer support groups and more. I found the group to be a strong set of individuals. While we all had our fears about the present and the future, there was a dignity and resilience in each person that I admired greatly.
People didnt complain or whine as I had imagined those years before. Each person brought their own coping approaches to the table and I found that I learned from them. I became more open, more giving and more sharing. I actually believe that I became a better person for the experience. When I had my latest recurrence from late 2003 through all of 2004, I found myself with an entirely different coping style which served me well. This time I was open to all my friends and family in the experience and I know that the reciprocated love, caring and openness made a difference for me. It may have been the difference in my recovery.
Even the most individualistic of us cannot be Islands unto ourselves. Even the strongest and most private of us needs to open ourselves up to others. Being able to share our experiences during a cancer battle helps us achieve a more settled state of mind which underpins our recovery aspirations. Now, as a 47 year old man with 28 years experience with cancer my first advice to the newly diagnosed is to find a cancer support group and allow the collective dignity, strength and humanity found there to steady and ground them for the difficult experience ahead.
Phil Kerslake is a New Zealand six-time cancer survivor, speaker to cancer support forums worldwide and author of the 2006 book: Life, Happiness & Cancer: Survive with Action and Attitude! For more about Phil, his book and speaking services visit his website www.lifepaths.co.nz.