Cancer: a frightening word that changes lives around

Thursday, June 3, 2004
Glenda and Wayne George. Wayne, like many in the Cancer Support Group, find relief in a sense of humor, and has retained his. Before having his photo taken, he asked Glenda if he could borrow her comb. "Does my hair look all right?" he quipped. CCN / Kathryn Lucariello

"CANCER" -- Hearing this word as a diagnosis can strike terror into your heart and the hearts of those closest to you.

You can't believe it. You wonder, "Why me? Why now?"

And if you are the primary caregiver of a loved one with cancer, you imagine a future without them and wonder how you will be able to survive that loss.

No matter how much caring and sympathy friends and family members extend, they cannot know what it is like to face this journey if they haven't been through it themselves.

You feel alone.

Whether cancer is a death sentence or not is still up for grabs. One thing is clear: cancer is a journey, there is hope, and you don't have to be alone.

That is the message of the local Cancer Support Group, started in Carroll County recently by Christina Moon and Wayne and Glenda George.

"We found out there is no local cancer support group in this county," said Glenda.

Wayne was diagnosed with lung cancer last November after an old athletic injury grew worse. The cancer had also metastasized to his brain, marking him as stage IV.

"That's when our world changed," Glenda said.

Thus began numerous trips to Little Rock for radiation treatments and clinical drug trials. And the worry set in.

"I did a lot of 'what-if-ing,'" said Glenda. "The first two nights I don't think I slept. It consumed my mind. What if something happened to him? What would I do without him?"

"The pressure was incredible," Wayne said. "One evening when we got to the motel room, and I had been worrying about her, and she about me, we fell apart. I said, 'There needs to be something good that comes out of this bad.'"

"I said maybe we should start a tri-city cancer support group," said Glenda.

"When she said that, it was like a 500-watt lightbulb came on," Wayne said. "I was ready to come back and start it up right away. It was like God was leading us to this."

"We knew we weren't equipped to facilitate the group," Glenda said. They were too close to it.

They knew Christina Moon, who had also been diagnosed with lung cancer that had metastasized to the brain and asked if she wanted to help form a group for people with cancer and their caregivers. She was gung-ho.

They then approached Frank Dinello, a retired clinical psychologist and professor from DePaul University in Chicago. He had been a former director of the Community Mental Health Center on campus for 25 years.

Frank agreed to facilitate the group. He provides active listening, guidance and information about the emotional aspects of dealing with cancer.

"I'm probably the one expendable person," he said. "They do all the work, take all the risks. The group takes its own course. I might help fine tune things and make sure everyone has a chance to share."

The group has two major rules: maintain strict confidentiality and don't give advice.

The second rule does not mean people don't share what works for them. They do. Avidly. But they agree to couch it in such terms as, "This is what worked for me. It may not work for you."

It's a huge relief just being with other people who know what you are going through.

"It's a safe place for people," Christina said. "If someone starts to cry, no one's going to pat you on the back and say, 'It's going to be all right,' because we don't know that. We can say, 'I know what you're going through,' and pass the tissue."

"Just hearing people's experiences -- there's something about that kind of communication that's uplifting," said Wayne.

Everyone interviewed for this article said the same thing.

"You can be very courageous, very brave, but there will be moments when you feel despair and anger," Frank said. "The group provides a place for people to experience and share those feelings without criticism or judgment. You are getting unconditional support."

Judy Simpson is a 17-year breast cancer survivor. She is not the only survivor who attends the group.

She both gets and gives support in the group.

"It helps to remember what I was going through at the time," she said. "And each year I go back for a checkup and I wonder, 'Is it going to be clean?' We give each other mutual support. It's about making some new friends on a very deep level. You can share things in that group you would never share with anyone else."

She said some in the group see her as a beacon of hope.

"One thing people in the group have to deal with is they're given statistics. I really object to that because we're more than a number. You don't have to be a number. You can be above that."

Others echoed these feelings.

"I have a prognosis in numbers, but that's their numbers," Christina said. "They don't have to be my numbers."

"If people ask about a prognosis, we say we don't know," said Glenda. "We don't think about that -- we're doing everything we can, and the rest is in God's hands."

People living with cancer sometimes have to face the varied reactions of "healthy" people, and the group also helps with that kind of support.

"I had two or three experiences where people didn't want to get close to me because of not wanting to deal with it or talk about it," Wayne said. "I dealt with it head on. We got some clippers and shaved my head. I get up and sing in the choir."

"Wayne is very comfortable talking about it," Glenda said. "We send emails to family and friends about where we're at with this so we don't have to talk about it every time we see them."

"The first few times it happened (of people having fear reactions about her cancer, Christina said), "I put up my hands and said, 'I don't want that energy -- I want your prayers for my healing and your love.'"

How have they dealt with the fear of dying?

"I don't give it a thought," said Wayne. "I never have. We're all going to die. I don't choose to give my thoughts to that."

Christina, whom many will know as a hospice coordinator and caregiver, has drawn on that background as part of how she deals with cancer.

"It gave me an understanding of what the possible future holds for me," she said. "There's a certain kind of wisdom that comes with working with people who are dying because they have (that wisdom), and you'll get it from them whether you want to or not. These are teachers for me, and in my own journey it has helped me to be fearless.

"I picked up my own MRIs and knew what it was I was reading. I felt no fear, no 'why me?' I thought, 'Well, I know what this is. I'll deal with it.'"

Beyond the sharing of feelings that only someone else who has gone through it can know, people in the support group are great resources of information for each other.

"Educate yourselves," is what Christina said she would like people facing cancer to know. "Don't just accept what anyone tells you. Don't fall for fear tactics. Go on the Internet and find resources.

"Find out the side effects of any suggested medications. Trust in your instincts and intuition. If it doesn't feel right, don't do it. There are people who are healing and thriving.

"Find people that care -- if it's not your family, create a family, some kind of support system. There are people who are willing."

"We're hoping and believing we will reach a lot of people," said Wayne. "There are a lot of folks that need to share and communicate.

"Maybe several groups will come out of this, but right now we have a group that anyone can talk to."

He quoted a poem by Edwin Markham that graces the front door of the University of Arkansas Medical Center:

There is some destiny that makes us brothers.

No one goes his way alone.

All that we send into the lives of others

Comes back into our own.

The Cancer Support Group meets twice a month at 4 p.m.: the first Thursday at the Holiday Island Community Church at 188 Stateline Drive in Holiday Island, and the third Thursday at First United Methodist Church at 195 Huntsville Rd. (Highway 23 South) in Eureka Springs.

For more information, contact the Georges at (479) 253-0823 or Christina at 253-6984.

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